Saturday, 29 September 2007


I have been using gmail for quite a while now to keep in touch with my family and friends.
And very convenient it is too - it retains the threads even after a lapse of several days. When my friend answers questions I had asked three months ago, somehow my original mail also pops up with hers, nudging my memory.

And I have been using it insouciantly, never bothering to look at the ads that have been creeping up insidiously.
Never suspecting that my mails are subject to the scrutiny of some unseen eye - after all it is my personal PC, not my boss's or anyone else's - I have not bothered to restrain myself in my mails.

It was only recently I found that the ads were related directly to some word/phrase in the content of the mail I had either sent or received.

Take for instance my friend's mail telling me that she had travelled Thai Airways just the day after the recent accident - and alongside I found the following ads -

Thinking Thai Property?

Cheap Tickets To Chennai

Properties In Thailand

Learn TEFL In Thailand

Save On Chennai Flights

Teach English in Thailand

Thailand Travel

Granted, I am using a free service which could do with fiscal aid!
Is it still right?

So how private is your email?


Gowri Mohanakrishnan said...

Thank you, Raji, indeed you rule. You've alerted us to how we pay with more than money for yet another free service, and something as innocent looking as a free email servce. We have a right to privacy, and the freedom of expression. Whoever reads this post, pass it on!

Anonymous said...

Well, this is sort of old news. And there was a big debate etc. whether it violates your privacy. Let me see if I dig some pertinent threads and debates that came up when gmail first came about.

But think about it this way: When your mail is being filtered for junk mail, your mail is being read is it not? Certain keywords are sure indicators of junk mail but it takes reading the mail to weed them out. What (not who) reads your mail is a dumb program. Similar programs read your mail and insert advertisements that are likely to be of interest to you. Google's policy (see point #7 here) makes that clear:

On a broader note: The web is mostly junk. I want as much automation possible to deliver only the stuff that interests me. I think there's a fine line between the desire to only have information pertinent to us automatically come our way, and the amount we are willing to tell the system about ourselves. It will be the subject of technical and social debates for many years to come.

PS BTW. You dont have a right to anything really, if you read the terms of service, which you should really. Privacy issues are sometimes deeply buried. You get to opt in or opt out.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Gardenia, freedom of expression does not imply free access to medium of expression.

pentatwo said...

Raji: This is called contextual advertising. Even as you visit certain websites and connect to links, the web crawlers (not people) will remember the sites you visited, and accordingly ads will pop-up related to your "visit histories." As an example, I log on to the University of Phoenix site regularly as I teach there. It is amazing how frequently a UOP ad will be on my screen even if I log into a site like cbssportsline.

Karthik Narayan said...

i agree fundamentally with your point but you forget that the whole website and the service is given by a person who knows your password, email id, personal details... it is with that trust that you pass on the genuine or totally false information to the service provider. While you can call it prudence and good practise for such provider to keep the dirt under the carpet, (when i say dirt, i mean dirt), you have to say its after all a payoff between revenue and privacy. in this case, the latter has no meaning to them...

Anonymous said...

Hmm, just because the mailman knows where you live and your name that doesnt mean he gets to open your letters and read them, does it?

Furthermore, they dont actually know your password. But that's another lesson.


Anonymous, thanks for the clarification.
Pentatwo - I see what you mean by webcrawlers. Even what you read is no longer private!
Karthik- Yes, but I don't want him knowing my daughter is Britney Spears, or the Queen is really my mother-in-law.:-).
He (who I know is a dumb machine really) is gaining access to info I don't wish to share!! Password and d/o/b I gave him willingly.
Glad that Anonymous agrees that the mailman shouldn't be reading our letters.

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Shoot! I have never noticed that! I will from now onwards.