A persistent theme in these writings is the abundance of computing power available for free, or almost free.  In the Featherlight series at ExecutiveEngines, we are illustrating how much critical IT horsepower can deployed in a startup for much less than the daily cost of a fancy coffee, a latte grande. These ideas are forged from the real-world, as I have had the privilege of setting up resources for a number of startups and enterprising individuals.  One of the free apps is the standard edition of Google Apps (for your domain) including email.  Google offers a premium edition of Google Apps for currently $50/user/year, which is a bargain — but that is another discussion.

The very substantial email capability Google provides for free, comes via a value exchange, a term which we have covered before.  In return for the email, Google gets to provide the sponsored links that have become so ubiquitous with search on the right side of the web view of mail or as a short text string at the top of the inbox.  I get an abundance of reactions to this.

The issue of email privacy is the issue I want to explore here.  Anecdotally, the vast majority of the people I set this email up for don’t seem to think about it — perhaps because we have become to accustomed to the aforementioned sponsored links that appear with our routine search results.  When I explain how it works, I see a few individuals become concerned, or even alarmed.  Here’s the deal:  the links are generated by processing the message contents for keywords that advertisers buy, brokered by Google.  So the machines are looking at your message, and serving up links that might be relevant in hopes that you might click one.  The part that raises concerns is the fact other parties, silicon-based or otherwise, are reading the mail.

There is no privacy … not sure there ever was.

The discomfort arises from the notion that what you, person A, say to person B on email is thought to be private and confidential.  If you are thinking about an email at work, game over.  Chances are, the email and the contents are the company’s, not yours.

Perhaps this expectation of privacy stems from our experience with the postal service, where we inspect the condition of the envelope upon arrival, and if in good condition, we presume it has not been read by others.  Anti-tampering laws may give some comfort that law-abiding people and companies are not reading our mail.  Of course, we often throw sensitive correspondence in the trash, where it can be picked and read by motivated miscreants.

Or perhaps we inherit the notion of privacy and confidentiality from our use of the telephone.  We expect that person A and person B, if each is in a private space, can conduct a conversation in private — unless a judge has issued a court order authorizing a tap.

Both cases, postal and telephone, seem to be some comfortable status quo where we prefer not to think how brittle our privacy may be.

Your glass house

What if I told you:

  • how much you paid for your house, and the size of your mortgage, is just a few free clicks away for anyone who wants to know.  Makes you wonder why there is still a taboo against discussing it at cocktail parties.
  • data about items you buy, including those which are known to be hazardous to your health and insurability, for how much and when, is sold to third parties you do not know.  Your affinity or loyalty card at the grocery store secured your permission to do so, often in exchange for a few cents off on items you could have bought for the same price at the discount store.
  • that you carry a microphone in your pocket, that can be remotely turned on to listen to any conversations in the room.  Again, a court order is required, but it is done.
  • that the time and date your car’s transponder — you know, that EZ Tag on the windshield — passed a reader is logged and available.  My local turnpike authority was embarrassed when a simple hack was published that allowed anyone to query their system for the logs of the account of anyone else; the easy security hole was quickly closed, but they still keep your data.

All of which is to say, many aspects of our lives are no as private as you imagine and in many cases, we willingly trade convenience or a few cents for our privacy.  This is like the old joke:  ‘we have already established the vice, all we are doing now is negotiating the price.’

Your best defense

So what do you do about it?

Accept the trade, unless you have a lot of money to waste on a private email servers and maintenance.

More important, do no harm in email. Email lasts forever.  Imagine your emails will be read by your worst enemy’s attorney in public, to  your parents, grandparents and children. Sobering image.

The reckoning

It is the inconsistency that screams out.  Volunteer privacy compromises daily for pennies or convenience, then refuse free enterprise-class email services because Google wants to have their machines process your message contents for words that might trigger ad-words they sold? Think it through.  db