News Column

Microsoft: Google's Watching You

Feb. 19, 2013

Marie Szaniszlo, Boston Herald

Did you know that Google combs through your personal emails for key words so the Silicon Valley search giant can better target online advertising?

According to a recent survey, 70 percent of Americans don't.

The same survey, commissioned by rival Microsoft as part of a major offensive against Google's Gmail service, found 88 percent of people disapprove of the practice.

In a statement, Google spokesman Chris Gaither defended the company.

"No humans read your email or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information," he said. "An automated algorithm -- similar to that used for features like Priority Inbox or spam filtering -- determines which ads are shown."

Online privacy experts say the automated nature of the searches does make a difference.

"If emails were subject to human surveillance, I think you would see a huge backlash," David Jacobs of the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center told the Herald. "So long as it's confined to an algorithm as opposed to a human being, users tend to be more comfortable with it."

Still, it's "jarring" for someone to see an online ad based on what they've just typed in a personal email, Jacobs added.

Google insists the automated email snooping is crucial to its business model.

"Advertising keeps Google and many of the websites and services Google offers free of charge," Gaither said. "We work hard to make sure that ads are safe, unobtrusive and relevant."

Microsoft recently ratcheted up its attacks on Google.

Microsoft says its "Scroogled" campaign, including a new Valentine's Day video, simply lets Gmail users know Google trolls through their email to sell ads.

"Clearly, we've got a competing product, which we think is better," Stefan Weitz, Microsoft's senior director of online services, said of "We think email is private, and we simply don't think you need to invade people's privacy to run a business."

As of yesterday, more than 9,000 people had signed a petition that launched as part of its campaign to tell Google to stop going through emails to sell ads.

Google's Gmail service overtook Microsoft's Hotmail last year as the largest email provider in the world.

Microsoft, which is promoting Outlook as its email service of the future, is in a pitched battle against rival Google for email dominance.

Source: (c)2013 the Boston Herald Distributed by MCT Information Services

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