One More Pathetic Reason Google Gets Away With Harvesting My Data

by Matthew Russell

I was somewhat surprised when I saw the following sidebar in my GMail earlier today:


Yep, that's a UPS tracking number. Perhaps this is one of those great little features that they've had all along, and I just haven't noticed it -- or maybe it's new? At any rate, I couldn't help but be strangely mesmerized by the sheer convenience of it all when I first saw it.

An e-mail provider identifying simple things like tracking numbers in my data and giving me those little extras seems dirt simple, doesn't it? But it also makes me wonder just how many other things in my data Google can (and does) index and track about me.

Call me apathetic, but these little niceties are exactly the kinds of things that drew me to GMail in the first place, and despite the fact that I *know* Google is harvesting the heck out of my information, I seem to be strangely okay with it.

I'm feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance over here: they're harvesting my data to the point that it's starting to make me feel a little bit weird, but I don't want to leave, because I just don't know of a better free e-mail provider. (And heck, even when I was willing to pay good money for .Mac e-mail, it was mediocre at best.)

A question to GMail lovers: what would it take for GMail to lose you as a customer?

That is, just how much of their uncanny ability would they have to expose to spook you away for good? There has to be a tipping point somewhere...I wonder just how carefully they're factoring this type of calculus into what they actually expose about their magic...


2007-07-18 18:54:22
I remember this feature from quite some time ago, at least six months.
2007-07-18 19:10:38
You don't necessarily have to "harvest" data to do this though; a simple pattern match across the text of the message is sufficient.
2007-07-18 20:24:04
Oddly enough, Google can track pretty much any of the package carriers' through the search bar including USPS (which surprised me). I work for one of the carriers and actually find using Google's service to be much quicker than our own.
Rob Rix
2007-07-18 20:46:18
It'd bother me if they were making my shipping orders available to other users. For my own use, contextual pattern matching is great, and it's starting to make me feel just a bit like science fiction, where my own personal context-sensitive AI is doing all this for me.

...except I always use instead of Gmail's interface. So much for the future (:

2007-07-18 23:49:50
Im the same - I think this is a GOOD thing. Rather that than an unrelated advert that id have no intention of clicking on..
Simon Hibbs
2007-07-19 01:28:48
If you are exchanging email in plain text, every mail server between you and UPS has a human readable copy of your email, and employees of every company owning those servers have access to it.

All google is doing is performing some simple processing on it, just as they process it to find spam, or perhaps viruses. Does analyzing you email to find spam constitute harvesting? If not, how come pattern matching it for a UPS number does?

Your cognitive dissonance is a product of you suddenly realizing just how exposed your data is, but that's not Google's fault. Every unencrypted email you ever sent or received was just as vulnerable.

2007-07-19 05:53:34
I had an interesting experience with Google Image Labeler last week which makes me wonder what else they are doing. As I was playing the labeling game, I was presented with a photo that was very inappropriate (I make no moral judgement here, just reflecting general sentiments that 3 men engaged in sex is not something that Google should pop up on my screen for fun). I could have let that go as just one of those things that happens until the next day. Since then I have been getting spam in my gmail account all about viagra, penis enlargement, etc. I had never gotten spam of this kind before. Coincidence? I wonder. You do the math.
2007-07-19 06:10:22
The fact that someone other than me was *storing* my data is why I have never used GMail. The monitoring and harvesting of that data is completely over the top for me.
2007-07-19 06:29:39
"A question to GMail lovers: what would it take for GMail to lose you as a customer?"

Free web server applications I can (easily) load on my server at home or my web hosting account to do the following:

1. Present my email with most of the features of Gmail but without the ability for anyone but me to analyze or harvest the data stored on it. (Round Cube seems to be the best bet on this so far.. anyone else have ideas?)

2. A web-based word processing and spreadsheets tool which allows me to manage my documents anywhere I've got an internet connection but without my data being subject to analysis by someone else.

I could go on -- web calendar, bookmarks synchronizing, and more -- but if I can get 1 and 2, I'd ditch Gmail. The features and conveniences were great selling points at first, but now I'm more than a little creeped out by their data-mining and marketing practices...

2007-07-19 06:41:19
As long as they're not giving my information to government authorities or direct marketers I don't care what they do with it.
2007-07-19 07:29:30
If the data isn't specifically tied to me, I don't care what they do with it.
Michael Ball
2007-07-19 07:31:12
I loved this 1 year ago while waiting for my MacBook. Or for that matter all my purchases from the Apple store.
They also have a feature where it links to google maps. To loose me GMail would have to do plenty of bad things
2007-07-19 09:09:13
Sorry Folks,
If I found this happening, very trace of Google wuld be instantly obliterated from my machines - are you quite mad? - have no idea of how much they now know about you and your data? if they have your UPS account info, they wil also know all your credit card data, bank acounts, phone numbers of you and all your contacts.....ell they probably have all your personal pics archived away somewhere

Do you really like to be owned for the cost of a 'free' mail account - what is that worth -$100 US a year? - you people are pretty cheap.......

2007-07-19 09:29:09
This is why you never put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn't want other people to see. Doesn't matter who hosts your mail (even if you host it yourself)
Simon Hibbs
2007-07-19 09:34:18
I'll try again.

Every time you send an email, every single mail server between you and the destination gets a fully readable copy of it. This will include your ISP, your correspndent's ISP and potentialy dozens of mail servers inbetween that you know nothing about. Google is just another mail server. Using a desktop client does not protect you at all, and never has.

Secondly, none of the features of Gmail require any 'harvesting' whatever. All they are doing is automaticaly pattern matching it and generating an automated interface customization. That doesn't require any extraction of your data, and anyway this type of processing is already done by any IPS you might use that do any spam filtering. If they were extracting your data and passing it on to some other service or database I'd agree with you, but this is not what is happening here.

If you think this is creepy, that's because you have no idea how email works. It's not unusual to be afraid of the unknown.

If you are concerned about the vulnerability of plain-text email that's fine, I understand that. Look into using PGP or whatever, but you have no more evidence of google doing wrong here than you have that your ISP is.

David W
2007-07-19 11:13:48
Of course sending email is like sending a postcard (anyone along the way can read it), but the difference is also quite significant. It is highly unlikely that anyone along the way actually does read my postcards. Once long ago email was like that too, computers simply read the "address" and sent the message one more step toward its destination. Today, however, mail servers do a whole lot more than just read headers and forward mail. Today they read the actual contents and decide whether or not to censor me. They sometimes make copies of my messages for later reference. Gmail stores everything you've ever sent or received (even if you think you've deleted it) while the rest of Google stores every search you've ever made. Google knows more about you than your spouse does and has absolutely no conscience or emotional reason for keeping that information to themselves. Doesn't that bother you?
John J
2007-07-19 13:37:34
The thing is, I expect that most other free web-mail providers are doing just as much data-scraping as Google, but most of them aren't as up front and don't give value added features for taking this info.
2007-07-19 13:51:17
re: David W

I work for the Post office and when I'm bored at lunch break, I read the postcards.

Henry Bowman
2007-07-19 15:57:42
As long as they're not giving my information to government authorities or direct marketers I don't care what they do with it.

Ha ha ha! All the data you've ever sent through Gmail is only one subpoena (or unilateral national security letter) away from that experience right now. You're aware that ISPs and mail service providers are required by law to keep backups of your data "just in case," aren't you?

Khurt Williams
2007-07-20 10:44:46
You are going on an on about Google "spying" etc while running an OS you understand nothing about. Are you sure the neither Apple nor Microsoft have planted secret code in your OS that analyzes and reports on each an every email you send/receive in or Outlook?

Forget the geekery crap. I know of very few people who have the time or expertise to host and manage their own email, web, database etc. servers. Just as corporate America is outsourcing more and more of their IT infrastructure so too are we the consumer outsourcing. I outsource my electricity generation to the power company. I outsource my food production to the grocery store. I outsource my photo processing (prints) to CVS, Wallmart, or Kodak Picture Gallery. How may of you have a photo processing studio in your basement? You trust print development of your family portraits to Sears or some mall photo studio.

This is speculative nonsense. Unless you know that Google is actually reading ( as in cognitive processing not just keyword matching ) your email stop this madness.

I don't give a crap if someone at Google know I purchased a product from I am sure my neighbor knows more about my purchasing habits than Google does. He just has to look out his living room window when the UPS truck pulls up.

2007-07-20 13:46:48
It's a string match. It's not some invasive artificial-intelligence-email-scanning technology.

You don't seem to understand SMTP. You don't seem to understand web mail providers. You don't seem to understand what sort of information you provide that is useful (website popularity via anonymized clicks...) vs stuff that isn't (personal email contents from Grandma, or from Amazon).

You also don't seem to be caught up on the fact that Google has a very good track record for privacy and not fawning over government agencies.

The writer's ignorance is showing...

sears parts
2007-11-14 10:37:25
Gmail rules! It's easy to work with it..and with the spreadsheets. I wouldn't want to stop using it.

[Ad link removed -- Ed.]

2008-06-06 05:02:01
its really very funny about how you americans worry about so called 'privacy'. You speak as if you are working for Al-Quida from FBI. Who the hell wants your $2000 limit credit card number or the ID of the package of flowers that sent your granny. I have used gmail to send photos and videos of me sleeping with my girlfriend's sister to my girlfriend so that she will come back soon from her official trip to me afraid of me making her sister pregnant !!!

Now if I was employed at gmail, I would have searched for *.jpg, *.wmv *.avi *.3gp etc on the server and I will be lucky if i could see something of my interest say in every 25 files i check.

And if i get a video that a girl sent to her boy friend for helping him to masturbate, that would help me too to masturbate and thats it... I dont want to leak that video out and lose my job at gmail.

Stop worring fellas... The WTC was full of such careful people who took every steps of there life with care... Everything gone in a second... so dont think that you are so important... if you die today, less than ten people will worry about it for a week or so and then you are just a history...