The news that Google will no longer scan your e-mails for advertisements has come as a surprise for many. While there are those suspecting why the search giant is turning away from snooping, the majority is wondering why this was happening in the first place. The latter’s dilemma first. Google was scanning your mail for targeted advertisements and to get to know you better. The company would tell you that this was being done to provide you with better internet experience, but it was also a source for Google to develop better products and open a stream of revenue via targeted advertisements. So, why has it stopped suddenly? Doesn’t Google believe in providing a better experience now?
Well, certainly it does. But the fight over Google snooping on e-mails is not a new one; the company has been a target of lawsuits over its illegal snooping activities. In 2014, the threat of legal action forced it to stop scanning e-mails for the student version of its e-mail service. While it exempted the corporate version of Gmail from this activity, in December 2016—this was also done in response to a legal lawsuit—it again changed the rules, this time highlighting that it would scan e-mails in users’ Gmail accounts only after the messages arrived in their inboxes. But on Friday, the company announced that it would even end this practice.
This certainly spells good news for most complaining about snooping. But the announcement does not mean Google will not read your e-mails ever. The company has found a new way to get into your mailbox. Last year, the company, at its IO conference, announced a feature called smart replies. Already operational on its app, the company has rolled this out for Gmail as well. What this means is that bypassing certain permission controls, Google can help you reply to emails.
Say, if someone was to send you a message enquiring about a project, Google can present options ranging from “sending in a few minutes” to “give me some time”. But what Google believes is that over time the service would be able to read your style and copy it for messaging, and even integrate calendars and other services for making more accurate assumptions. In the project example, it would scan your to-do list and reply according to the deadline set by you. And, as this is all too technical, there would be many who would not notice how this is done or know how to turn this off, letting Google easily record mail activity.
But still, why would the search giant leave out targeted advertising, which is a substantial proportion of its revenues source? That is because Google already knows enough about you and a large part of it stems from increased use of Android phones. Android constitutes 86% of the smartphone OS market and requires you to create a Google id for each of its services. More important, over the years Google has been developing policies allowing it to gather more data from people’s smartphones and learn about their preferences. Take the case of location sharing, even if you switch off all forms of sharing and access, even delete Google Maps (none of this is advisable), Google still will have access to its Play Store requires you to share location.
Even for those accessing services via iOS or their desktop, login activity—most of us do not log out of our Google accounts—keeps Google appraised of what you are doing. And then there are trackers. Besides, Google has been trying with companies to aggregate data on who’s buying what to link it back to its advertisement feature. Given that there is no escaping Google and it already knows enough about you, surrendering Gmail is not much of a sacrifice it’s making. So, don’t worry Google is still striving to better your experience. That is the price you pay for getting personalised content.