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Is Gmail Privacy As Bad As Microsoft Says It Is?

An interview with Microsoft's Stefan Weitz

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Is Gmail Privacy As Bad As Microsoft Says It Is?
[ Technology]

Last week, Microsoft launched a new “Scroogled” campaign. In case you don’t recall, the company launched a campaign under that name during the holiday season, calling out Google Shopping for its paid Google Shopping model (a move that has been controversial). This time, Microsoft is using the “Scroogled” brand again to attack a decade-old feature of Google’s Gmail – the one that Google uses to target advertising to users by algorithmically scanning emails.

Are you concerned about Gmail’s ad targeting practices? Do you consider them to be a violation of privacy? What is your opinion of the ads themselves? Share your thoughts in the comments.

We had a conversation about Microsoft’s latest attack on Google with Stefan Weitz, Microsoft’s senior director of Online Services (also one of the more well-known faces of Bing). While Microsoft recently launched a new mail product – Outlook.com – many find the timing of this attack a bit strange, given that Gmail has operated this way since its inception.

“We want to make sure people understand how much of their privacy they are giving up when they use Gmail,” Weitz tells WebProNews. “If people understand they are giving up their privacy and they wish to do so, that’s their choice. But we want to make sure they understand this is going on. What surprised us, even after a decade of this practice, is that over two-thirds of people don’t know what is happening and when they find out, nearly 90% say it should stop. People are saying it doesn’t seem right. It seems creepy. The question users have to ask is: Do you want one company to have that much information about you?”

Google did alter its privacy policies last year, essentially consolidating them into one that spans across its various products, making it easier for the company to use data from one of its services in another.

Of course, Microsoft does scan users’ emails. Just not to serve ads.

“We do not scan the contents of user emails for the purpose of showing ads,” says Weitz. “Like many email providers, Outlook.com scans the content of your email to help protect you and prevent spam, gray mail, phishing scams, viruses, malware, and other dangers and annoyances. It is just like how the postal service sorts and scans mail and packages for dangerous explosive and biohazards. Of course, Outlook.com

"Outlook.com uses other information like user profile information people submit when signing up (age, zip code, gender), but we even give users an option to opt out of personalized ads for free," he adds. "Gmail doesn’t."

In a previous article, we looked at what Google says about privacy in Gmail. Google’s PR has been sending around this comment:

“Advertising keeps Google and many of the websites and services Google offers free of charge. We work hard to make sure that ads are safe, unobtrusive and relevant. No humans read your email or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information. An automated algorithm — similar to that used for features like Priority Inbox or spam filtering — determines which ads are shown.”

You can read a much lengthier set of relevant comments from the company from an old help center article in that article.

It should be noted that Google has fired employees in the past after they were caught (in separate incidents) spying on user emails and chats. You can take that two ways: 1. It has happened before. 2. Google does not tolerate such behavior. Presumably, these incidents had nothing to do with ad targeting.

Microsoft’s new Scroogled ads almost make Google’s ad targeting relevance seem like the subject of the attack in some parts. See the dead cat example in this one:

“Who wants a free pet exam coupon when the family cat has been put down?” the ad asks.

“First, it’s important to keep in mind that Google’s practice of earning money by reading personal e-mails is not exclusive to Gmail users,” says Weitz. “This also impacts those who don’t have a Gmail account. If you use another email provider but you send an email to someone else’s Gmail account, Google goes through that too. That’s why we’re also asking consumers to sign the petition on Scroogled.com and tell Google to stop going through their emails to sell ads.”

“Second, Outlook.com is committed to protecting users’ privacy and offers users the experience they’re seeking in their email provider,” he continues. “Last, I’m not sure how making their targeting even more exact is going to make the 90% of Americans who say it should stop any happier.”

In case you’re wondering if Microsoft has ever targeted ads based on email message content, Weitz says, “We have never targeted ads based on the content of email messages. Our privacy policy is very clear on this. The bottom-line is we don’t eavesdrop on private communications. We still have ads in Outlook, but the difference is we don’t scan your mail to sell those ads. We think we can still make revenue to pay for the service even if the ads are not directly targeted or related to the private communications that you have. And we give users the option to opt-out, which is a big difference from Gmail.”

Microsoft told us during the original holiday themed Scroogled campaign that the name “Scroogled” was about “Scrooge” (as opposed to “getting screwed by Google” or something along those lines). We could buy it at the time, given the holiday context. Bing even went out of its way to make A Christmas Carol references in its announcement of the campaign. Now that we’re into February, it’s starting to feel a little more like “screwed by Google”.

“You can interpret it however you would like, but Outlook.com’s ‘Don’t Get Scroogled’ campaign is purely about prioritizing privacy and making people informed,” says Weitz. “When polled, over two-thirds are unaware that Google reads their e-mails to make money from targeted ads. ‘Don’t Get Scroogled’ is simply a national consumer awareness campaign to educate Americans about Google’s practice of going through the contents of personal Gmail email messages to sell and target ads. That, and the term has entered the lexicon to generally refer to unseemly practices by Google.”

On a different note, given the rivalry between Google and Microsoft and Microsoft’s relationship with Yahoo, many are wondering what Microsoft thinks about the newly announced deal between Google and Yahoo for contextual ads.

“I’d say I wonder how Google is using the content [of] your private communications in Gmail to serve ads in other places,” says Weitz on the subject.

When we spoke with Microsoft’s David Pann last week, he told us that the company would be launching Google-like product listing ads (they’re also launching click-to-call ads with Skype integration) later this year. As long as we had Weitz, we figured we’d see if he had anything to add.

“We’ll have more to say about new ad products in the future but it’s important to note that they are just that – new ad types,” he says. “As we always do, we will clearly highlight when something is an ad versus organic.”

In addition to the new Scroogled campaign, Bing has also renewed its Bing It On campaign with new research data.

Do you think Microsoft is handling online information better than Google, whether that be in email, search or ads? Let us know what you think.

Is Gmail Privacy As Bad As Microsoft Says It Is?
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  • kevin

    Imho the invasion of privacy is in the scanning of the mail, not the dishing up of relevant ads.

  • http://planet48.blogspot.com/ Ahsan Khan

    war of Tech Giants.

  • jenish kachhadia

    i think whole point of microsoft is rubbish. breach in privacy also happens when they scan mail from spam and viruses. google just adds bunch of algorithmic code to spam/virus scan and people get ads wht they wanted/liked. and i m user of both services and in my experience outlook/hotmail hv lot of ads compared to gmail. microsoft is being evil all the same.

  • Ian Ray

    Microsoft for city council!

  • http://www.foxcrawl.com Foxcrawl

    can microsoft prove that they are the good samaritans? I believe that any email-hosting company can easily steal information, therefore do not keep your credit card of bank details in your web account:)

  • PaulG

    Of course it’s an invasion of privacy, and more . Analyzing my conversations or any form of communication in order to determine how best to sway me into spending my money is a horrible practice and should be made illegal.

    Advertisements are obviously an effective way of getting consumers to buy products, no matter what those products are. But pushers should not be allowed to scan a people’s digital/communicative property in order to “cast a more powerful money-grabbing spell”. I think I’ve made my point here.

    This does beg the question, are my emails/text messages/phone conversations my property?

    • Anon

      But you are using their services. They have a duty to know what is on their systems. This means that email through these companies can never be secure. They will always have the ability to rummage through your emails because you are storing them on their computer systems.

  • Nathan

    Gmail lets you opt out of the personalized ad services for free(This means no prying into email). If Microsoft’s goal was to inform people of the truth, then this would be explicitly stated. Instead Microsoft falsely informs people of a so called issue with privacy.

    Microsoft does not have the high ground here.
    1. Non-personalized ads are more intrusive because it is like having spam mail that is never filtered out.
    2. Google explicitly lets you opt out of the personalized in Gmail

    • Victor

      Thanks for pointing it out Nathan! I wasn’t aware that Gmail actually offers Opt Out Ads, just checked it.
      So Microsoft made a blatant accusation here, since we voluntarily Opt In Ads in our Gmail.

  • http://Wredlich.com Warren Redlich

    I’ve been using Gmail for years – Best mail service, especially the spam filtering. I know they personalize ads based on content and I just don’t care.

    Microsoft lobbing this kind of attack is ridiculous. They’re like the bully in the playground who whines when he gets knocked on his butt by the kid who finally stands up to him.

  • http://www.intercambioidiomasbarcelona.es Robin dinnersinenglish.es

    If you don’t agree you can use another mail – or for sensitive private contents .

  • Anon

    Why do people use these free services to begin with? It costs next to nothing to have your own domain, under your control, with as many damned email addresses as you like!

    Pay $5 a month and have your own domain, your own email, free of this corporate snooping. If it’s on their servers you do not own it, they do. They can pilfer through anything they like on their own systems.

    Do it yourselves, it’s not hard!

    • Hal

      What makes you think that your email hosting provider is not reviewing your email??
      IVAN IS LOOKING AT YOU… no matter where..

    • 3 Mobile

      Presumably you wont be sending any emails to anyone with a gmail account too? Youre basically implying a boycott! Well that wont work!

  • http://blog.3dcandy.co.uk Ade

    At least my gmail account is hacked on a regular basis and used to send spam, eh Microsoft…

  • http://pilobilus.net Steve K

    “We want to make sure people understand how much of their privacy they are giving up when they use Gmail,” Weitz tells WebProNews.

    That would be the same 100% they give up when they use Hotmail?

    Webmail is not e-mail, it is an unrelated messaging service that happens to “talk to” real mail servers when required. Webmail is not a “free” service, you pay for it in lost speed and efficiency, added advertising and surveillance, and by creating a permanent one-stop-shopping record of your communications in hostile hands.

  • http://ccofgod.org Leslie Jenkins

    I prefer seeing ads directed at my interests. Thanks Google for doing that and profiting at the same time. Win Win Win.

    • http://com-BOY.weebly.com com. BOY

      Same here!

  • Christopher Jones

    I kind of understood how gmail worked before I started using it. I have more than one email, so depending on what I am doing determines what email I will use. Since I knew gmail scanned email to show ads, I treat it like a resume. I would not put anything on a resume that I don’t want a potential employer to know. So when I use gmail, I try to send email that I am comfortably if anybody saw it. I assume I have no privacy with gmail, despite the privacy policy.

  • http://www.ameriwebs.com George Snell

    for 4 or 5 dollars a month you can have a private mailbox with web mail and just forward the gmail, hotmail, yahoo and aol mailboxes. No ads, available everywhere from you laptop, tablet, phone, whatever.

  • lots0

    If people really knew how invasive google really is, they would be freaking out.
    But google has been very good at obfuscating how deep they dig for personal information and how much personalized information on each user they collect.

    Buying the FTC in this last election didn’t hurt them much either.

  • Robert

    It possibly, because google is evil now. Top google manager Eric Schmidt selling his G stocks, so we need to expect some big news very soon.

  • http://getcom.de Ralf Münk

    Gmail has a spam filter which ends with no email in inbox but all in spam folder. Gmail reads all mails. Gmail also has a mailserver blacklist with millions of wrong entries. It is not possible to reach gmail accounts for lots of people. The consequence is that Gmail is dead. Nobody can use it, nobody wants it.

    • 3 Mobile

      What planet are you on!

    • http://com-BOY.weebly.com com. BOY

      I am a happy gmail user for years already.

      1. Google doesn’t read any e-mails. It’s an automated algoloritihm. No human reads your email. Oh, and EVERY emailprovider scans your email with an automated algolorithm, for filtering spam. Google uses it for spam too, AND for ads. So it’s NOT a violation of privacy.
      And ads tailored to your interests are MUCH less annoying then ads with a subject you completely don’t care about.
      2. Spam filter has few false positives.
      3. NEVER had ANY problems to login. And I’m already using gmail for years.

      Oh and something else:
      4. You can turn on “2-step verification”, and then when you want to login, it asks you a randomly generated code that has been sent to your phone. No code = No login. Really secure. Few/no others do this.
      5. Built in chat with other gmail users. And video/audio calls. For free.

      I <3 GMail. And Micro$oft's Scroogled campaign doesn't change that.

  • http://www.rahulgladwin.com Rahul

    Anyone can get a custom email for like $10 / year. I can’t believe people are still using free email services…

  • jerez

    Isn’t that always what they say?
    I am doing this to save you, or protect you, just like the husband who has an affair…lol
    Google, get a life..
    pfft…
    don’t rationalize, you aren’t needed for free email.. gimme a break!

  • Myra

    There’s not much of anything shocking about the “goog” boys activities. IF they’d allow the Peking govt to spy on their populace with goog’s help; if they’d steal private owned songs and not pay royalties and, if they’d park their multimillion dollar, company jet in a “u.s.” government hanger-for free–then nothing surprises me about them.

  • J B

    I’ve been using GMail since it’s inception, and couldn’t care one bit that they use an algorithm to provide relevant ads.

    Like most advertising, I ignore it, except in the rare case where it’s actually something I really need.

    I think calling it a “breach of privacy” is a bit of a joke. It’s an algorithm, not some weirdo sitting their reading your personal emails. Frankly the stats of 90% say they think it should stop, is probably an indication that only about 10% of the population knows what an algorithm is.

  • http://www.belfast-architects.co.uk Alan

    I use these free services for rubbish, places that receive the spam and all the low priority stuff. However recently I noticed that Google was trying to force me to switch from Yahoo to Gmail, it was in relation to Google Places, business locations. A lot of hype about upgrading and not supported etc. Worrying trend?

    Take seriously such matters, and do everything possible to ensure that your identity overall is a bit confused and incorrect, even vary it from place to place. The reason is we do not know who may eventually have access say 10 years on. Who in Germany in 1923 would have predicted 1933!

  • Frank

    What? no one using Ad Blockers. The only reason i have a gmail account was to make it easy to link all my google accounts to one place. I have never given out this address to anyone, so if google likes reading its own emails ………… never use gmail for a private account.

  • http://Mabuzi.com Mabuzi

    I was shocked when I found out that all the major e-mail service providers not only target ads but read your e-mails too.

    Try removing adverts in Skype or ask not to store cookies on your computer, no matter what you do in the settings the adverts and cookies get placed.

  • JW

    Gee. Which is worse.

    Google using computers to read your mail in hopes of finding something they can use to send you an ad.

    OR

    Microsoft using computers to read your mail on Outlook and files on Skydrive, in hopes of finding something as minor as an offensive or profane word so they can use it as a basis for cancelling your account?

    If you don’t believe it – read MS’s Terms of Service.

  • InternetSeer

    I feel both parties should not do what they do. It is like if you write a personal note to family and have them see it, it is very perverted. Would they like that? I dont believe it just stops at targeting for ads, I think it goes a lot deeper then that. I do find it very creepy to look for something online to purchase and its then there on my screen, as if I need pushing to get it. My computer crashes over and over with Microsoft due to all the spyware, in fact I can’t use bing without it crashing, and this is on at least a half dozen computers over the last so many years. There are more bugs spying then your computer can clean up. BUT I think both sides do too much intrusiveness. Aol also has opt out but I’m sure its a federal regulation to still spy on all internet service providers. They are part of the watch group to turn in so called wrong doing but its very odd that both yahoo and gmail do nothing when a stalker is threatening you. In other words they allow stalkers to continuously create phony emails used solely by stalkers and when you report the offender to them, with say 200 plus emails NOTHING gets done. I had one person say they were going to do a Ted Bundy on me and recently found my personal resident location. YES police are there too but they also do not want to be bothered with this. You end up being very afraid to share anything online… They do NOTHING for spamming on their blogs and emails… If you go to the heart of the matter and straight to the top of the company and see who and what their political beliefs are and what their personal agenda is aiming towards, you would not wish to use any email provider that is too big for their britches…. Its sad and sort of like dealing with a paranoid who has to know you every thought, feeling, action, and beliefs system. All in the name of so called safety and yet safety never comes, its more violated by the day. Too much power and money can corrupt a man and an organization thoroughly and absolutely. People of the world are free, even when chained, if but in their minds they know this to be true.

  • http://www.damienelsing.com Damien

    Wait, so Google will tailor ads for me based on stuff that might actually be of interest and benefit to me? Oh the horror!

  • Love GMail

    Microsoft needs to stop wasting so much effort bashing Google and actually focus on creating a better service. Maybe then Bing and Hotmail will stop being such huge pieces of crap.

    • http://www.damienelsing.com Damien

      Yep, agree totally. Constantly pointing the finger just makes them look reactionary and negative. Why don’t they try leading the way instead of playing catchup and trying to drag the other guy down?

      • Love GMail

        Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  • Jimmy

    I don’t really care about google reading my emails to display relevant ads. As long as I can use their service for free. The people in google don’t know me anyway.

    I will be concerned about it if there are really people (who know me) reading my emails.

  • Stephan

    Today Google (possibly) just collects info to optimize ads, and tomorrow? What will they do? What are their plans to make more money?

  • http://www.microsourcing.com/disciplines/search-engine-marketing.asp MicroSourcing

    Google’s practice of scanning emails to better target ads for users is similar to what Facebook is doing, except that Microsoft is using this to its advantage as a competitor.

  • DoesNotMatter

    I started using Yandex Mail. Awesome product, much better then gmail.
    You can even use you gmail and hotmail accounts in your yandex account.
    Best product for mail, I was very surprised with it.
    Seems like Yandex is becoming a really big player.

  • Joe

    It is strange that this article asks you to G+1 it..lol

  • http://speedyloansearch.com/ Speedy Loan Search

    I’m shocked. I’m dismayed. I had no clue that all those ads I get on Gmail that are directly related to things I’m doing were from Gmail scanning my emails! :-)

    The truth is I could care less. The ads don’t generally get in the way, and they don’t seem to overtly violate my privacy. And Gmail works a lot better then coldmail (oops, hotmail).

    • ricardo

      funny been using HOTMAIL for 20 years never an issue never a problem with 10′s of thousands of emails and contacts calendar etc… not ever an issue with anything. You must be a creaton… (oops idiot)

  • ricardo

    from many examples of invasive practices, bans of google from some countries and the general behavior the company is sadly miss managed. a question of Monopolistic activities and privacy intrusion is just silly, yes they abuse their position and yes they read your private and corporate email. I for one only use Goober for Spam Emails never for real email. Don’t be a Gooberfile too and don’t support a company with no scruples or respect for personal privacy.

  • Ross K

    But Microsoft use also Gmail eds! See Pic! :-)

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4kDJ8W5sBiDYU4yNEVXNWxZU1U/preview?pli=1

  • http://www.graciousstore.com Nina

    It is improper for companies to invade users privacy for any purpose. People did not sign up for email accounts with Google only to have their information distributed to companies without their concepts. It is a violation of people’s privacy ans it should stop.

  • Robert

    yes, Gmail Privacy As Bad As Microsoft Says. But outlook/yahoo is not better. Everything scanned everywhere at that services.

  • James Pettigrew

    I would rather have an algorythim that filters out adds for products in which I have no interest.
    As a 70 plus person, I realy an not interested in getting adds promoting skateboards or the safety gear.
    The trick is to look at what I am not getting, rather than what may fit well into my lifestyle.

    James R

  • jr

    When given the option yes or no – people will always choose no, unless there is a marked advantage if they particpate. Unfortunately for Google, the perceived advantage we had that drove us to Google is being marginalized by competitors who offer similar or better services. Microsoft has a viable alternative to Google in many areas from search, to web office apps, storage and email. It would be silly for Microsoft not to get people to question the value proposition they get from Google and what they are giving up for it.

  • jonathan winters

    I got ads for baby services after writing emails describing my wife’s miscarriage. Is Gmail really so amazing that they expect me to stick with them? The reason I signed up for it back 2001 was that it had limitless storage, over a gigabyte online! Nowadays, what amazing service does it offer other than targeted ads?

    • Pat

      That is exactly why I quit Gmail several years ago! Google has been sued for tracking people they were told not to track. Google does NOT care about you or your privacy! Neither does Yahoo or Microsoft! We are just cash cows for them and they treat us no better than cows. Yes, changing your email address is a real inconvenience! But, there are much better options to the current dilemma! Perhaps the day of “free” email is coming to an end for people who want private, secure, reliable email service! We have “subscriptions” for many things and with the current state of affairs, maybe paid subscriptions for encrypted private, secure email are something to consider. We pay an internet provider for access to the internet so adding a couple bucks a month for much superior email service such as Hushmail is something to consider. A couple cups of coffee a month at your local coffee shop is all it costs! The peace of mind it brings though is priceless!

  • Sherry

    We were not given the option of upgrading this crap! I am so very disapointed of what you call of Upgrading? NO!! I had finally figured out how to use it. Some of us are NOT 20 years old. Can’t you just LEAVE EVERYTHING ALONE??? Do we have the option of going BACK to the way it WAS???? So frustrated, I am ready to go back to a Land Line. HATE, HATE the what you call UPGRADE???? NOT WORKING!!!

  • Gloria Gregory

    I am finding it hard to do anything much on the computer when the ads and constant inquiries come to me. Yahoo wants me to “update my profile” and basically persists. I sign out, and sign back in, though even this is not easy. I click on No Thanks, and still have trouble getting away from it. It’s like a bully. Ads constantly swirling around, in my face, sometimes over the very thing I’m trying to read. I’ve got a good stock of Forever Stamps and may just start reading books again. I always listen to radio news. I have tv; lots of input besides the frustration of computer access. I do like my local files, however, in My Documents. They don’t cause me any distress!

  • tucker

    I used to work for Bing Ads – they don’t use your email for ads they use your searches which will be tied to your ID if you don’t oot out. No one below a technical supervisor can open and read an email without client consent or a warrant. That being said they lower level workers are treated badly. And improvements can take forever.