How private is your Gmail, and should you switch? | Gmail | The Guardian

Most people are aware of the cookies that track them around the web and Google’s privacy-invading search practices, but did you know that Google’s email service, Gmail, also collects massive amounts of data?

This was recently brought to light for iPhone users when Gmail published its app’s “privacy label” – a self-declared breakdown of the data it collects and shares with advertisers as part of a new stipulation in the Google Store. apple applications.

According to the label, those who grant the appropriate permission to the gmail app for ios can expect google to share information, including your approximate location, user ID (an identifier used to track you anonymously), and data about ads they have seen online. with advertisers. More data is used for analytics, in Google’s words, “to create better services,” including purchase history, location, email address, photos, and search history.

gmail is by far the most popular email service, with over 1.5 billion active users, compared to 400 million using microsoft outlook and 225 million signed up for yahoo mail.

Although Google stopped analyzing the content of emails to personalize ads in 2017, last year the company started showing shopping ads in Gmail. and continues to parse emails to facilitate so-called smart features, like the ability to add holiday bookings or deliveries directly to your calendar, or autocomplete suggestions.

every way you interact with your gmail account can be monitored, like the dates and times you email, who you’re talking to, and the topics you choose to email about, says rowenna fielding, founder of privacy consultant miss ig geek. .

how google uses your data

Much of the information collected by gmail and shared with advertisers is metadata – data about data. But if you carry cookies from other Google services, your activity may be correlated or “fingerprinted” by associated products, such as Google Maps and YouTube. “gmail becomes a window into your entire online life because of how wide and deep its surveillance architecture is,” fielding says. “virtually everything you do online will be fed back to google.”

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Google claims that none of the data collected from scanning emails for purchase information, delivery tracking numbers, and flight bookings is used for advertising, but as Andy Yen, founder and CEO of the email service, says secure email protonmail: “it remains a fact that google keeps track of these events and logs them independently.”

Part of the problem is a lack of regulatory compliance around email data collection and tracking. Most people are becoming aware of tracking when they visit websites due to regulations such as the eu e-privacy directive and the general data protection regulation (gdpr).

“people are aware of cookies because of the privacy and data protection law, which states that the installation of trackers on your device requires your consent and you have the right to be informed about what happens to your data. data,” Fielding says. “In Europe, those protections also cover email tracking, but there hasn’t been much enforcement in this area.”

gmail v other email services

other conventional email providers aren’t much more private. Like Gmail, Microsoft Outlook is built into the company’s ecosystem and integrates with its other services. “Any conventional consumer-level account is only free in the sense that you don’t pay with money, but with data,” Fielding says. “Microsoft says it doesn’t look at the content of emails in Outlook to show you ads, but is open to collecting and using metadata about user activity across its services for advertising.”

gmail is also the heaviest data collector, says yen. He says the iOS privacy labels illustrate the “stark difference” in the approach to data collection between the Gmail app and other email providers. “outlook and yahoo collect a lot more than they need to, but even they don’t go as far as gmail in collecting location data and purchase history.”

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Privacy experts often say that if you don’t pay for the product, the product is you, and when it comes to Google, this is “undeniably the case,” says yen. “Google’s business model is based on monetizing the data it collects from users, primarily to sell it to Google’s real customers: advertisers… Gmail is part of that data collection infrastructure.”

However, while it’s true that Google is sucking up your data, Jon Callas, director of technology projects at the US privacy advocacy foundation, Electronic Frontier, says the most pervasive tracking is coming from mail-order sellers. email, not from service providers. “here, since google is one of the largest advertising companies in the world, it is intimately involved no matter what email service you use.”

These types of emails, from companies offering products and services, can be monitored by the sender, whether or not you knowingly signed up. Data sent to email marketers includes whether you opened the email, how long it lasted, and which links you clicked.

Callas explains: “When you upload images remotely, the people who sent the email know that you read the message, the time you read it, and an approximation of where you are via your network address.”

These “images” often consist of a single pixel and are invisible to the naked eye. callas says the best way to protect yourself against this type of stealth tracking is to set your email to not load images or remote content by default.

lock your gmail or choose a privacy-focused alternative

The other problem with gmail and similar services, according to privacy advocates, is the lack of end-to-end encryption. Used by secure messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp, as well as email services like Protonmail and Hushmail, this gold standard level of security protection means that no one can access the content of your emails, not even the provider. it also gives you the assurance that the email service cannot sell your data to advertisers.

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But this level of security and privacy often comes at the expense of functionality people are used to in Gmail, like integration with apps, including Google Calendar.

However, some experts question whether end-to-end encryption is necessary for email, when applications like whatsapp and signal can be used for private and convenient communication. and as silent says: “the protonmail service is encrypted, but for this to be effective, both parties must use some form of encrypted email.”

so, do you need to get rid of gmail? If much of the above sounds confusing and leaky, you might consider a provider like ProtonMail to send emails to others using a similarly protected service or signal, ensuring that the communication is end-to-end encrypted on both sides.

and if you’re not concerned about google’s data absorption habits, you can review your feedback after using their privacy check feature to review the piece of data it has about you. however, there are many options to restrict the data that its services collect about you. Additionally, Fielding recommends blocking online trackers on other Google services with tools including Privacy Badger or Ghost.

if you have an iphone, it is possible to block gmail even more if you bypass the google app and stick to the apple mail client, or open your email through the safari browser.

although this may not offer the same level of functionality, fielding says: “using apple mail is an incremental improvement over using the gmail app, because apple’s business model is not as reliant on data and advertising technology like google.”

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