Consumer privacy expert qualifies Google announcement

'Most people think email should be private, just like a letter sent through postal mail.'

Mordechai Sones,

Cyber security
Cyber security
iStock

After Google's announcement that it will stop scanning users' private e-mail addresses, Arutz Sheva asked consumer privacy expert Liz McIntyre whether she considers the move to represent an authentic improvement in user privacy.

"Google's recognition of privacy concerns is smart on its part. Companies that continue to follow the 'surveillance capitalism' playbook will become data-sucking dinosaurs as consumers become more educated about how they are disadvantaged by that business model. Companies that siphon personal data will be replaced by privacy-friendly companies like the companies I consult with, StartPage.com and StartMail.com. Apple is another visionary company making privacy a priority--even when it isn't convenient.

"It's good to see Google is taking some baby steps when it comes to consumer privacy," McIntyre said. "The other day it announced it would remove confidential, personal medical records of private people from search results, for example. Many privacy advocates are pleased, but scratching their heads about why that information was online in the first place. But kudos to Google on that move.

"However, Google's announcement that soon 'Consumer Gmail content will not be used or scanned for any ads personalization...' doesn't go far enough. In fact, as a privacy advocate I'd prefer that the company continue showing personalized ads based on email content because it's a helpful reminder that Google scans and stores the content of email messages.

"Make no mistake that the Gmail announcement will not change the reality that Google not only scans and stores email messages, it logs and tracks what consumers do when interacting with its other services and products, as well. The company will continue to log and track the very personal things people email about, the very personal things they search for online, and other bits of information most people want to keep to themselves.

"What people write in their emails and what they search for online speaks volumes about them. These data points provide insights into things like a person's interests, finances, and medical conditions. While Google may not sell it or use Gmail data for targeting personalized ads in the future, the company stores it and uses it in ways that many find troubling. Here's an excerpt from Google's privacy policy that drives this home:

'Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection.

'We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services – for example to make it easier to share things with people you know. Depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.' (see: https://www.google.com/policies/privacy/)

"So theoretically," continues McIntyre, "the scanned Gmail information could influence what search results Google delivers to someone, for example. Most people want to determine for themselves what information they should see without regard to what they might have emailed to a friend. So targeted advertising is creepy, but it's not the only beef consumers should have with Google email scanning. In fact, most people think email should be private, just like a letter sent through postal mail. Imagine the uproar if a postal service were caught routinely opening and reading personal consumer correspondence!

"To be fair, Google is not the only company that uses consumer personal information in disturbing ways, though Google gets picked on a lot. There's plenty of concern to go around. Microsoft and its Windows 10 phone-home fiasco is one example. Consumers are seeing through Microsoft's lip service to privacy, proven by Window 10's lackluster uptake and PR disasters. And, of course, Yahoo is notorious.

"In fact, Yahoo is the poster child for why US companies' scanning and storing personal information in massive databases is a serious privacy issue: Consumers have to assume the US government and hackers can access it, too. Once this might have been labeled overwrought conspiracy theory, but no more, thanks to a series of Yahoo scandals revealed in late 2016. Accounts for millions of Yahoo customers were compromised by hackers, which was bad enough. But then we found out that Yahoo cooperated with the US government, giving law enforcement unbridled real-time access to consumer email, whether or not those consumers were suspected of any crime.

"Even law abiding citizens have to be concerned when any company or any government holds the key to the details of their everyday lives, not to mention evidence of their innermost thoughts and feelings. Thanks to recent high profile events like the Yahoo scandals, more and more consumers are rewarding their business to privacy-friendly services. Companies like Google must make truly meaningful changes to their practices to remain trusted and relevant if they want to survive.

"So what do I think of Google's promise not to scan Gmail content for ad personalization? Good try, but no cigar."

Liz McIntyre is a consumer privacy expert and co-author with Dr. Katherine Albrecht of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Purchase and Watch Your Every Move. She works as a consultant for StartPage.com and StartMail.com, privacy-based services to help protect consumers against surveillance.




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