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Privacy Concerns Make Some Maryland Students Wary of Google's New E-mail Service

Alex Frey doesn't want Gmail.
Alex Frey, a junior at the University of Maryland, is concerned about Google's computers scanning his e-mail messages. (Photo by Adam Ostrow)

By Adam Ostrow
Maryland Newsline
Tuesday, July 13, 2004

COLLEGE PARK - While some people are so enamored with Google’s new invite-only e-mail service that they’re willing to bid for accounts on eBay, Alex Frey wants nothing to do with it.

“I don’t want to be a huge guinea pig for advertisers and for my every comment to be dissected by some computer in an attempt to sell me more useless crap,” said Frey, a junior electrical engineering major at the University of Maryland.

Frey is not alone in his concerns about Gmail. Since Google announced its new online mail service in April, numerous privacy advocates have voiced complaints about it.

One reason for their alarm: Google’s computers scan users’ e-mail messages and display ads based on their content. Critics have become so vocal in the last month that Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page amended their recent IPO filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to add privacy as a risk to the company’s long-term success.

"We know that some people have raised privacy concerns, primarily over Gmail's targeted ads, which could lead to negative perceptions about Google," Brin and Page wrote in their filing.

Although Google’s founders acknowledge concerns, enthusiasts are impressed by the new service.

Ben Bederson, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, believes the service represents the future of e-mail. It allows users to search their own saved e-mails with the same technology that runs Google’s search engine.

Bederson said he was excited about that interface. He added, “I'd much rather that there were no advertisements at all in the world, but given that our entire capitalist society is based on them … I think Gmail is better than the current alternatives.”


UMD student Alex Frey comments on Google's Gmail service.
He noted that with Gmail, at least the users consent to having advertising advertising attached to messages.

But Frey and other University of Maryland students do not share Bederson’s enthusiasm. Greg Shanahan, a senior finance major, is not sure he even wants to send e-mail to users of Gmail. “I have always been careful about what I say in e-mail. But now if I know I am sending an e-mail to someone using g-mail, I may not even send it,” he said.

Although Shanahan knows it is unlikely that any Google employees will read his personal messages, he is uncomfortable with a computer analyzing their content.

Although Gmail has many outspoken critics, many remain eager to join the service because of its unprecedented amount of disk space to store messages. Google’s 1 gigabyte of storage is nearly four times more than competitors’—allowing users to archive several years’ worth of e-mail messages.

Some also find the contextual text ads less intrusive than the banners and pop-ups that dominate other free e-mail providers.

“A computer scanning my e-mail to deliver relevant ads is a marginal tradeoff considering the 1 gig of e-mail space they are offering,” said Maulik Patel, a junior economics major.

But the generous disk space comes at a price. When a Gmail user deletes an e-mail message, it does not disappear into cyberspace. Google stores all deleted e-mail messages on its servers, although it claims it will not ever use this information.

The state of California has responded with proposed legislation that would prohibit such data retention.

Although Patel said it is Google’s right to make money through ads targeted at content, he is mixed on the issue of Google storing deleted messages. “This seems like it might be a malicious use of our private communications,” he said.

For now, Google’s policy of storing users’ deleted messages remains, but Frey said the company might be overlooking a potential public relations disaster. “Sooner or later some illegal activities are sure to be discussed or carried out using Gmail,” he speculated. “It will be interesting to see how the company responds if the government tries to recover as evidence some deleted e-mails.”

Currently, the only way to get a Gmail account is to receive an invitation from another Gmail user, which Google has issued sporadically since April. Despite the concerns over privacy, the invitations to the service remain a hot commodity online, with people at one point spending upwards of $100 for invitations to the service on eBay.

But Frey doesn’t see what all the hype is about. "I am satisfied with my current e-mail provider," he said. "I don’t see what I could possibly use 1 gigabyte of e-mail storage for anyways.”

Copyright © 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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