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Google's Gmail Is Great -- But Not For Privacy


I expected to hate Google's new Gmail service. I'm not a big fan of Web mail services -- such as Microsoft's Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail -- and even the promise of a gigabyte of free storage seemed like a bad trade-off for getting messages with ads tied to their content. While Gmail has focused attention on serious privacy issues about Web mail in general, the Google service, currently in a limited trial, is a pleasant surprise.

With all that storage -- 500 times as much as Microsoft (MSFT) offers in a free Hotmail account -- Gmail promises you will be able to keep your mail in one big bin and use Google's familiar search tools to find messages months or years after you receive them. During my brief trial, I couldn't accumulate the thousands of messages needed for a real test of search abilities, but I have no doubt of Google's ability to make search work.

One objection I have had to Web mail is that it can be painfully slow. Gmail eases the pain with spartan, graphics-free pages that look like Google search results and download quickly even on a pokey connection.

The ads, which are displayed only with incoming messages, are identical to the ads served up with Google searches -- a few unobtrusive lines of text on the right side of the page. While the idea of seeing ads based on the content of messages is slightly creepy, the reality is not so bad. For one thing, the small text ads are much less intrusive than the spinning, bouncing, flashing ads on Hotmail pages.

GOOGLE ALSO UNDERSTANDS THE SENSITIVITY of the ads. There are no political, sexual, or medical promotions. The ads seem to be triggered primarily by the mention of products, and I found that most personal messages, including internal mail and mail from readers, came in with no ads. My efforts to trick Gmail into bad taste, say by serving an ad for flowers with a note about a relative's funeral, failed when I sent messages of made-up disasters and they arrived without ads.

Many privacy advocates, however, are up in arms because Google's computers will scan message content to choose the ads. One California legislator even introduced a bill banning such ads. But the truth is that virtually all e-mail content is scanned, usually multiple times, by antispam and antivirus systems. If you think e-mail can be read only by the intended recipient, whatever system you use, you are deluded.

A more serious privacy concern is raised by the potential for thousands of your messages, perhaps accumulated over years, being stored on Google's servers, where you have little control over them. This is an issue with any server-based mail storage, but it's intensified by the amount of storage Gmail offers. "It matters where your mail is stored," says Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, a privacy advocacy group. "Not just today, but forever."

The main federal law covering the privacy of e-mail, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, is 18 years old and full of flaws. Its protections are loophole-ridden and, in particular, it allows law-enforcement agencies to gain access to your messages on a mail provider's system without your knowledge.

A privacy concern unique to Gmail is that Google could combine information about a huge store of your mail with records of your search activity into a detailed portrait of your life. Google co-founder Sergey Brin says that the Gmail privacy policy is still evolving and that "it makes sense to let users separate" mail and search information. The current policy is likely to be toughened to limit linking mail with other search results.

Gmail looks to be the most usable Web mail service I have tried. But it does accentuate the privacy issues that have always surrounded Web mail, especially considering, as Brin reminds people, that "the political climate does fluctuate." It could be a good choice when it becomes available later this year, but you should be aware of the risks.

For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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