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Q: If Google actually reads / scans the content of your gmail.com account to determine what advertisements they're going to serve to you, who else is peeking at your correspondence?  

A: Just about everyone.

I've always been somewhat hyper vigilant about my online privacy and security - I've even written diaries on the subject.  What I didn't fully realize or appreciate (until this morning) is how ubiquitous this monitoring has become.  Even more concerning, most of us have just come to tacitly accept data mining as the price we pay for our "online experience".

The other day, I ordered a widget online.  Normally, when I order something online, I use one of my "spam catcher" email accounts for receipts and communication.  This time, for whatever reason (I was in a rush, wasn't thinking about it, whatever) I entered an email address on the order form for a gmail.com address that I use primarily for job searches and military veterans research.  This morning, I logged into gmail.com, and along with my normal job board search emails, there was a receipt and shipping details from the online merchant where I purchased my widget.  The subject line said, "Thanks for your order with [merchant name], order # ABC123XYZ".  There was no indication in the subject line what I had ordered.

Lo and behold, when I read the email, Google served an ad strip to my browser with offers from a variety of different merchants for the type of widget I had purchased.  At the top of the ad strip, there was a link titled: "Why these ads?".  I clicked on the link, and a popup box came up:

This ad is based on emails from your mailbox. Visit Google’s Ads Preferences Manager to learn more, block specific advertisers, or opt out of personalized ads.
In other words, Google read my incoming email from the merchant, knew everything about the widget purchase (including the price I paid), where the widget was being shipped (and served me a couple of geo targeted ads), what type of card I used to pay for the widget, etc. etc.  This information wasn't gleaned from the subject line.  It was contained within the email from the vendor.

The first thing I did after the realization hit me was go to the Ads Preferences Manager and opted out of personalized ads.  Will this stop Google from reading the content of my emails?  I rather doubt it.  More importantly, this experience reinforced to me (like I should have needed it reinforced) that someone, somewhere, is looking at every bit and byte I send through the interwebs.  If you think that there is any privacy or security online at all in even your email communications (at least with common email providers like gmail, Yahoo mail, Hotmail, etc.) you would be wrong.  So, the next time you're having a bit of a racy online conversation with your significant other, consider that someone (or some computer algorithm)  is reading it, and will serve you ads based on your...err...proclivities.  

A bit scary?  Absolutely.  As an erstwhile web professional, I subscribe to Website Magazine.  The June issue (not yet online) leads with an article on why web analysts are in such high demand by businesses, noting that "we're drowning in data, and the tide keeps rising".  The analytics currently being used by online retailers are evolving rapidly to deal with this data - but clearly, as shown by my own personal Google example - it's not just online merchants who are using this data for their own purposes.  I have no problem with an online merchant that I buy from (think Amazon) using my purchasing history to "recommend" other widgets to me that I might have some interest in buying.  In fact, I gave them that permission when I bought the original widget.  But when Google is reading an email from that merchant to me, and doing the same thing, a line has been crossed, Google's terms and conditions of use be damned.

Today, I'll start migrating away from the gmail address associated with the order I placed.  It'll be a major pain in the butt, and will take some time, but I learned (once again) a valuable lesson, particularly in light of the fact that the mother of all data mining operations is going to be up and running very soon.

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