Gmail launched way back in 2004, on April Fool’s Day of all days, though now it would appear that the joke is on their users who’ve installed third party plugins. I remember it being released because not only was it free (though ad-supported) but we were assured that we would never need to delete an email ever again, which we now know aligns with their aim to collect as much information as possible. There was even a counter that showed the ever growing storage allotted to our accounts. Virtually overnight, it became gauche to have @yahoo.com or @aol.com on the end of your email address. For a time it seemed that no self respecting IT worker would send out a resume without an @gmail.com address. That’s how popular it became and it made quite a splash, as millions like myself signed up in droves.
I kept that address for nearly 10 years, but the crossing of the Rubicon occurred for me the moment that I read of their intention to serve ads to their newly acquired Nest thermostats. It’s not that I didn’t know that my emails were being scanned for the purposes of targeted ad campaigns, but I had decided that I was tired of that feeling of Google constantly looking over my shoulder. While they supposedly abandoned the practice last year to bolster their image for their corporate (read that as paid) email accounts, that did not however preclude them from sharing private emails with app developers as we have learned today.
Much like Facebook, the problem inherit with Google’s business model has always been their willingness to sell access to your data to third parties. Today it was reported that not only have computers scanned the emails in gmail accounts, actual humans have read some of those emails. For Google’s part, it is in their EULA, but we all know how impossible it is to read and understand the legalese in every agreement that we enter into online. For the app developer’s part, they are required to secure permission from the users to gain that access to individual gmail accounts. That’s not to say we should absolve them of guilt, because it’s all rather sneaky and underhanded. Few of us would willingly give access to our email accounts to total strangers if we actually understood what we were agreeing to when checking that little box.
I’ve been a faithful user of my iCloud email account going on 3 years now. While I’m under no illusion that my emails aren’t being scanned by Apple in some manner, after all it’s their legal duty to scan for, and report any kiddie porn, their business model doesn’t rely on giving access to third parties. In fact, they have been building their services with privacy in mind and they have no reason to allow their competitors to advertise, or access whatever data they have collected on their customers to sell them competing products. They may use it to advertise their own products to their existing customers, but I’ve chosen to be their customer and I initiated that relationship. Knowing that Apple views privacy as a competitive advantage rather than an obstacle to their core business model is something that I’m willing to pay a premium for.
I understand the rationale of those who prefer open source products because I used to be one of them. There will always be an uneasy trust when it comes to any corporation in possession of my private data, but I’ll give preference to a business model that encourages the prevention of sharing that data rather then encouraging it. I fully expect Google to respond to these reports, and possibly alter the access that third parties have to emails going forward. For me though that is not enough because they were hardly up front and honest about it to begin with, and only came clean when called out by the media.