Last year I was writing an email to one of my girlfriends at home. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, so it was one of those three page long life-update type of e-mails. During the e-mail, I of course updated her on all the obligatory college-kid social life boy drama that had been going on the past few months. When she responded, it was in one of those handy dandy conversation threads that Gmail is kind of enough to provide right next to their insightful advertisements. I had previously been very impressed by their ads. Instead of “male enhancement” offers and incessant reminders about the latest World of Warcraft release, I was greeted by ads that seemed reasonably applicable to my life. It was kind of fun to imagine the key words that Gmail had picked up on to select merchandise especially for me. It seemed reasonable for them to parse my emails and pick up generic information about my consumer tendencies. Amazon and Ebay have been doing it for ages. (Users like me also bought what?!?!) This email, however, had nothing to do with me as a consumer. That afternoon I glanced over at the Gmail ads and was greeted by some particularly insightful advertisements: “Need Break Up Advice?”, “Your Ex will Beg you back!”, “Marriage Crisis Warning”, and “How to Stop a Break Up”. Of course, there were also “Popular Engagement Rings”, “Unique Style Wedding Ring”, and “Cheap Engagement Ring”. So apparently Gmail was rooting for this relationship. I will admit that I initially found this mostly just hilarious. It’s good to know that someone is on your side in a break up, even if it’s Gmail. Looking back on it this week, though, I realized just how much information about me Gmail can access.
When I was reading articles about Fourth Amendment issues relating to email, they kept on talking about the government petitioning for information from ISPs. It was a reminder that the information we are trying to protect from subpoena is already available to . . . a lot of people. Warshak v U.S ruled that a reasonable expectation of privacy extends to emails that would otherwise fall under the SCA’s lower level of protection. The government pointed to the fact that the terms of service of many ISPs permit those ISPs to monitor user activities to prevent fraud, enforce the TOS, or protect the ISP or others, or to comply with legal process. They claimed that if you use an ISP and the ISP may monitor what you do, then you have waived any and all constitutional privacy rights in any communications or other use of the ISP. Luckily, they weren’t successful. So, moment of exhale that the government can’t seize our email, but reading the decision just reminded me how much privacy I do give up when I use the internet.
I will admit I have never read a “terms of service”. Maybe that makes me grossly irresponsible, but I don’t think I’m alone in the practice. Yes, mostly I’m just lazy, but I also just see privacy invasion as inevitable. I use the internet . . . a lot. I make an effort to have reasonably secure passwords, I don’t give my credit card information to anything offered in blinking red font on the side of a website, and I don’t trust advertisements that pop up when I’m watching MegaVideo. Mostly, I try not to be an idiot and that’s about it. I try to keep someone from stealing my credit card, but I’ve thrown in the towel when it comes to Google reading my email. It’s all on their servers, and of course they have to have protection built in so that they can see information on those servers. I don’t read the small font that says they can, because I assume that every email provider will claim the same privileges.
We may have a right to privacy, but do we have any hope of attaining it? Do you we have to give up all privacy to use the internet? I feel like I do. I feel like the privacy invasion is baked into the internet, so I’ve stopped worrying about it. The onion’s alternative does not seem like too much fun. I’m interested in keeping my constitutional rights, lord knows that when I get nailed for insider trading, I’m going to want to keep those “They’ll never see it coming, let’s steal money and then take liquid ecstasy” emails to myself. Until then though, I’m just going to keep using the internet, assume that Gmail is reading my email, and hope that they offer sound advice about my love life.