How private is your Gmail and should you change it?

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MMost people are familiar with the cookies that track them around the web and Google’s privacy-invasive search practices, but did you know that Google’s email service, Gmail, also collects large amounts of data?

This was recently brought to the fore for iPhone users when Gmail released its ‘privacy label’ app – a self-reported breakdown of the data it collects and shares with advertisers under a new stipulation. on the Apple App Store.

According to the label, those who grant the proper permission to the iOS Gmail app can expect Google to share information, including their approximate location, user ID – an identifier used to track them anonymously – and data on the advertisements they have seen online with the advertisers. More data is being used for analytics – in Google’s words, “to create better services” – including purchase history, location, email address, photos and history. research.

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 registered with Yahoo Mail.

Although Google stopped crawling email content to personalize ads in 2017, the company started running Shopping ads in Gmail last year. And it always scans emails to facilitate so-called smart features like the ability to add vacation bookings or deliveries directly to your calendar, or auto-complete suggestions.

Every way you interact with your Gmail account can be monitored, such as the dates and times you email, who you talk to, and what topics you choose to email, says Rowenna Fielding, Founder. from privacy consultancy Miss IG Geek.

How Google uses your data

Much of the information Gmail collects 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” from related products such as Google Maps and YouTube. “Gmail becomes a window to your entire online life because of the breadth and depth of their surveillance architecture,” says Fielding. “Pretty much anything you do online will be bounced back to Google. “

Google claims that none of the data collected while scanning emails to find purchase information, delivery tracking numbers and flight bookings is used for advertising purposes, but as Andy Yen says , founder and CEO of the secure messaging service ProtonMail: “It remains a fact that Google keeps a record of these events and does record them anyway. “

Part of the problem is the lack of enforcement of regulations regarding the collection and tracking of email data. Most people become aware of tracking when they visit websites due to regulations such as the EU Online Privacy Directive and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“People are aware of cookies because of the Privacy and Data Protection Act – which states that installing trackers on your device requires your consent, and you have the right to be notified of what happens to. your data, ”says Fielding. “In Europe, these protections also cover email tracking, but there hasn’t been a lot of enforcement in this area. “

Gmail v other courier services

Other traditional email providers aren’t much more private. Like Gmail, Microsoft’s Outlook is integrated into the business ecosystem and integrated with its other services. “Any consumer-grade mainstream account is only free to the extent that you don’t pay for it with money, but with data,” says Fielding. “Microsoft says it doesn’t look at email content in Outlook to serve you advertisements, but is open to collecting and using user activity metadata across all of its departments. for advertising purposes. “

Gmail is also the biggest data collector, Yen says. He says iOS privacy labels illustrate the “glaring difference” in approach to data collection between the Gmail app and other email providers. “Outlook and Yahoo pull together a lot more than they need, but even they don’t go as far as Gmail in collecting location data and purchase history. “

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

Still, while it’s true that Google is absorbing your data, Jon Callas, director of technology projects at Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US-based privacy advocate, says the most invasive tracking comes from IT specialists. email marketing, not service providers. “Here, since Google is one of the largest advertising companies in the world, it is intimately involved no matter which email service you use. “

These types of emails – from companies offering products and services – can be monitored by the sender whether or not you have knowingly signed up. The data returned to email marketers shows whether you opened the email, for how long, and which links you clicked.

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

Often, these “images” consist of a single pixel and are invisible to the naked eye. Callas says the best way to protect yourself from this kind of stealth tracking is to configure your email to not upload 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. This standard level of security protection, used by secure messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp, as well as messaging services like ProtonMail and Hushmail, means that no one can access the content of your emails, even the provider. It also gives you reassurance that the courier cannot sell your data to advertisers.

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

Still, some experts question whether end-to-end encryption is necessary for email, when apps like WhatsApp and Signal can be used for private and convenient communication. And as Callas 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 ditch Gmail? If much of the above seems messy and leaky, you may want to consider a provider such as ProtonMail to send email to others using an equally protected service, or Signal, which ensures that the communication is end-encrypted. end on both sides.

And if you’re not concerned about Google’s data consumption habits, you can revise your opinion after using its privacy check feature to examine the slice of data it holds about you. There are, however, many options to restrict the data their services collect about you. Additionally, Fielding recommends blocking online trackers on other Google services with tools like Privacy Badger or Ghostery.

If you have an iPhone, it’s possible to lock Gmail even more by bypassing the Google app and sticking to Apple’s own Mail client, or opening your email through the Safari browser.

While it might not offer the same level of functionality, Fielding says, “Using Apple Mail is a gradual improvement over using the Gmail app because Apple’s business model doesn’t depend on not as heavily data and ad technology as that of Google. “

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