Yes, ad-savvy Google scans your Gmail
Recently, I've been using Gmail, Google's Web-based e-mail service, to the exclusion of all other accounts. I dusted it off a few months...
Special to The Seattle Times
Recently, I've been using Gmail, Google's Web-based e-mail service, to the exclusion of all other accounts. I dusted it off a few months ago when I joined the Internet dating crowd, as I needed a moderately anonymous way to protect myself from any crackpots that may emerge.
But it soon became my preferred information pipe, for its convenience, superior message organization and spam filtering. I didn't even notice the ads, which occasionally popped up on the right-hand side of the screen.
That is, until a few nights ago when I was discussing mystery novels with a correspondent, and mentioned that Tony Hillerman was one of my faves. A little bit later I glanced at an ad that promised discounts on Hillerman books and memorabilia. I noted the event, although I didn't click through.
A few days later I saw some ads/links to dating sites that I had not tried. Again, I didn't click through although it creeped me out.
I attributed it to one of those modern technological phenomena, like how the light changes when you approach or how an iPod will play consecutive songs by Elvis, Lennon, Dylan and Manilow.
But when my sister sent along an itinerary that had airline discount sites referenced it was all too weird.
These are not coincidences. Google has a feature it calls AdSense, which scans messages for content and then links the user with targeted advertising. As I've been discussing online dating, it sends me links about how to tell when a woman wants to be kissed (OK, I did click there, but don't tell anyone).
I just sent a message that mentioned "Star Wars" six times; maybe they'll send me a link to where I can buy the Darth Tater incarnation of Mr. Potato Head.
There are a lot of reasons some people will hate this, on principle. It is an invasion of privacy, a sneaky way to sell you something, proof that no matter how hip a company may seem, when they get a little success, they start acting like Big Brother. Or Darth Vader.
Get over it. Google is providing a "free" service to millions of people that took years of development and is in a state of constant evolution. How are they supposed to pay for this?
The folks there owe us nothing; in fact we are in their debt. For what we are getting, we should be willing to be guinea pigs for their technology. If this bothers us, we can go elsewhere (after all, it is explained in the fine print).
It also bears notice that the same scanning technology is what separates out the spam. And it's not like an actual person is reading our messages, sitting in a dark room and saying, "Charlie is writing about leather, so I'll just hook him up with the Coach Web page." It's done by a machine at the speed of light that doesn't take the time to examine daily minutiae.
The real reason this is a molehill in a teapot relates to what I've tried to hammer into readers for the past six years. No e-mail is really private. There is no assurance that a message will reach only its intended target.
With dozens of servers and satellites, people can read your messages if they expend the effort. I don't believe they do, only that they can.
So I don't mind if Google scans my mail to clean out the detritus and sends along some potentially interesting links. Maybe I'll even learn what to bring along on my next first date.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.