The Thruth about E-Mail

Just today on facebook, I was having a “conversation” (more of a rant really) about email and advertising. This was brought on by a friend of mine who posted a link to a blatant slander ploy by Microsoft in the form of scroogled. I won’t post a link to it as I don’t feel it’s appropriate to link to propaganda.

Basically, the site goes into details about how they think Google is mistreating it’s users with the way they operate. To be clear, Google do read peoples emails in order to target advertising to them, they also use the web searches you do and any other information they can gather. This is not unusual, other companies such as Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft all do the same thing to some degree. The recent complaint is that people think Google have been spamming them, when really all they have done is put some discrete advertising at the top of their inbox. It’s not really spam, but if you’re a bit dim you might think it’s an email.

So there is a grain of truth in the mound of salt that Microsoft put up on the web, but just how bad is it?

Lets consider to start with that the services in question (Gmail, facebook, etc) are usually free of charge. So companies need to pay for running the service, and hopefully make some profit as well. They have already committed to making the service free so they have little option but to use advertising (much like free-to-air TV) to make money. Advertising is something we need to live with in order to have a lovely free service.

Now Google read you email pretty much with the aim of picking more relevant ads to display. This should work in everyone’s favour, but people of course complain about invasion of privacy (perhaps rightly so). You get ads that may actually be relevant (you can always ignore them) and advertisers only pay for people seeing ads that might be interested in the service.

The problem is e-mail never really has been private.

The reason for this is basically the design of the basic protocols that make up the e-mail services we know today. The main ways of reading messages come in the form of imap, pop, and http (web-mail). Http fortunately can be encrypted, if you see https:// at the start of the URL people can’t intercept the messages between the server and you. Both imap and pop generally use plain text, which is easy to read and intercept. Again it is possible to encrypt these transport methods, but that is far less common for those types of connection.

The transport of messages between servers is the really big flaw with e-mail services. SMTP is the protocol used, and whilst you can encrypt your SMTP connection to the server, the messages are often sent in plain-text from server to server enabling computers and clever people to intercept messages in a transparent way that is undetectable. Encryption of messages from server to server is starting to become common, but you can’t guarantee it. Yet.

Another problem with SMTP is that anyone can send an email from pretty much any email address. This is how many phishing scams trick people.

So is your e-mail really private. Well the answer is unfortunately no, anyone determined enough to find out what messages you are sending/receiving will get access to your messages. If they own the servers with your mail, they have full access with no effort. However privacy is gradually improving but not quite there yet. This is basically because the e-mail services as we know them were designed in the early days of the internet when such concerns were not thought of. If you have messages so private that you don’t want _anyone_ to read them you should consider using another service or encrypting the contents of the messages.

All this being said, I’d expect far greater invasion of privacy on social networking sites as people give away far more information for free on those than we typically do via e-mail.

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