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Someone’s reading your mail

Bajinder Pal Singh

Posted: Jul 05, 2005 at 1315 hrs IST

Are the e-mails that you write totally personal and secret? Or does somebody read them? To understand this, one has to understand that e-mails cannot be personal and secret. And yes, e-mails are indeed read by computers. If you thought that no one ever gets to read your e-mails, just read the fine print of the popular free e-mail service providers. But before that, let us undertake a small experiment.

Send yourself three different e-mails, with slightly different text messages. And carefully look at the advertisements that appear on your screen. I tried this experiment with Gmail, but let me assure that it would yield similar results with service providers as well.

The first e-mail that I wrote to myself had just one word — ‘‘watch’’. The moment I opened the inbox and began reading the e-mail, right next to the mail contents, on the right side panel, the advertisements that appeared had some popular watch manufacturer selling his wares. Another ad was from a seller of antique watches. You may ask, how did the watch manufacturer located in another part of the world know that I was interested in his products?

The second e-mail modified the earlier e-mail and instead of a single word ‘‘watch’’, it said ‘‘watch this movie’’. And this time, the advertisements were not about watch manufacturers, but about sale of DVD movies, and those who taught me how to become a film star! The third e-mail had this simple one-line text, ‘‘I wish to learn German.’’ This time three advertisements appeared, all of which were links on learning German language.

The experiment points out that the service provider knows what you have written. Gmail’s policy, clearly mentions that no humans read your e-mail, but clarifies that the ‘‘matching of ads to content is a completely automated process performed by computers,’’ indicating that computers scan or read your messages.

Take a look at Yahoo. It mentions that, ‘‘once you register with Yahoo! and sign in to our services, you are not anonymous to us.’’ Though it does not sell your information, but it does provide information ‘‘to trusted partners who work on behalf of or with Yahoo! under confidentiality agreements.’’ And it displays targeted advertisements based on personal information. Similarly, Hotmail states that ‘‘it occasionally provides information to other companies who work on our behalf.’’

But all this should not scare you from writing e-mails to me at

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