Why Is Google Giving Up On Scanning Your Personal Emails?

Google's finally giving up its long-standing habit of riffling through your inbox to see what you're interested in, perhaps paving the way for enhanced security.

If a service is free, you're the product. Never was that pearl of wisdom more true than when talking about Google's suite of free tools like Gmail and Google Drive.

They're fantastic services, offering free features that were once out of reach for many people — when Gmail first launched with a whopping 1GB free inbox people assumed it was an April Fools joke — and in return all Google asks is that you trade a little privacy. Or a lot, depending on how you look at it.

Google is an advertising company and it's well known that it serves up targeted ads alongside your inbox by looking for keywords in your email. This only applies to free personal Gmail accounts, not business G Suite accounts.

Of course there isn't an actual person reading through every personal email, that would be impractical, instead it's done by machines on the assumption that they'll be discreet when handling our secrets.

To some people this might sound like a dystopian nightmare but it obviously doesn't bother everyone considering that Gmail is one of the world's most popular email services with more than 1.2 billion users. Yet as people become more aware of privacy issues, Google has finally decided to stop reading personal emails in search of advertising ideas, starting later this year.

So why would Google make this change now considering people have willingly tolerated this invasion of their privacy for more than a decade? It's quite possibly paving the way for Google to follow the industry trend of improving encryption efforts to ensure that no-one can read your emails in transit, not even Google.

Your Gmail emails are encrypted as they cross the internet on the way to Google's servers, and after they leave Google's servers on their way to their destination, but in the middle they need to be decrypted at some point so Google can scan them for advertising ideas.

In light of Edward Snowden's revelations about US surveillance, there's now a worldwide push to enable end-to-end encryption to ensure that no-one can read your messages in transit, not even your service provider.

Google has been slow to deliver on its promises to introduce end-to-end encryption because it cuts to the very heart of how Google services work and how the search giant makes its money.

For example popular chat apps like WhatsApp have introduced end-to-end encryption recently, but it's disabled by default in Google's Allo chat app because it cripples some personalisation features. Likewise Google's "End to End" Chrome extension for Gmail has found itself on the backburner.

With Google finally vowing to abandon email scanning on free Gmail accounts for advertising purposes, it removes one of the major hurdles to implementing end-to-end encryption for all users.

That said, Google hasn't committed to abandoning email scanning completely, just to stop looking in search of advertising ideas. Of course you'll still see ads in your Gmail inbox, based on your online habits and the treasure trove of data Google has collected on you over the years.

Have you avoided Gmail due to Google's email scanning? Would default Gmail end-to-end encryption allay your privacy fears?

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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Comments

    While "If a service is free, you're the product." is probably true the inverse is not. That is, whenever you interact online "they" are almost always collecting as much data as possible.

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