FOX 5 Investigates: Cyber Snoops - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

FOX 5 Investigates: Cyber Snoops

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Your mail is private, protected by law, from prying eyes. Your e-mail is not. And now, some of the words you write to your family and friends are being sold to the highest bidder.

“I think a lot of users would be surprised to learn that is how their personal information is being treated,” said John Verdi, Senior Counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

He’s talking about Gmail, Google’s free e-mail service.

“Users don't expect the contents of their e-mail to be driving marketing campaigns,” said Verdi.

What’s going on? Gmail is selling ad space based on the content of your mail, current and past. The company admits this on its website. A web video explained how it works.

“Let's say you're reading a confirmation e-mail from a hotel in Chicago. Next to your e-mail, you might see ads about flights, restaurants, or other things relevant to a trip to Chicago,” said on the video.

We set up a Gmail account to see first hand how specific it got. We left the subject line generic. A note about a trip to New York delivered ads for New York hotels. A question about cosmetic surgery brought ads for services in our neighborhood. A potentially sensitive message about a friend’s pregnancy had a link for an ultrasound. Google even translated a lunch date for “next Friday” into the exact date, and offered to put it and the location on my calendar.

When asked if Google is reading our mail, Verdi said, “Google is absolutely reading the contents of your mail.”

Google said it’s not reading, technically, but scanning.

“Of course the system is entirely automated, no humans are involved in selecting ads. It's similar to the way we filter for spam, or check spelling,” the web video said.

Google did not want to be interviewed on camera for this story, but did relay us to its privacy policy. They also told FOX 5 it does not share personal information or e-mails with advertisers. Still, some of the key words from e-mails, like “ultrasound”, “dog”, “beach properties”, are flagged. So, Google can deliver ads based on them, while those messages are in your inbox.

“Any e-mail service could in principle create an interest profile based on frequent keywords in mail. Currently, Gmail's policy is not to do this; our ads serving system involves no logging or storage of interests,” said Steve Crossan, Product Manager for Gmail Ads.

But Google, or any other e-mail service, could change its policy and add that e-mail data to information that the company, and marketers, already know about you.

“Marketers out there can create very detailed dossiers about a person, not only what you're interested in, but demographic information, how much somebody makes, race, gender, all those kinds of things,” said Maneesha Mithel of the Federal Trade Commission.

Companies bid on how much they are willing to pay to have their ads placed on the page you’re viewing. The more an ad service knows about you, the better it can tailor an ad to your interests. And the more they can charge for it.

It’s called behavioral targeting and the FTC is working to strengthen guidelines for companies.

“That's the way a lot of the internet is funded. So, there are benefits, as well as risks,” said Mithel.

The risks are that you unknowingly reveal too much about yourself. Every time you browse the web, that information is collected and saved.

“What we type into that Google box or that Yahoo box or that Bing box, says a lot about us,” said Verdi.

If you’ve ever “Googled” your own name or got directions from your home, all those data pieces come together to point right back to you.

“Companies try to give the impression that things are free. But in reality, you're trading information about yourself. You're trading your own personal data for access to free services,” said Verdi.

Don’t like it? There’s not a lot you can do.

“The laws on privacy are essentially non-existent in so far as internet privacy is concerned,” said Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher.

He is working to change that, proposing laws that will better protect internet users.

For now, consumers can choose to “opt out” of data collection. But that’s only available on some sites.

“It's really hard for consumers to do that, because companies take a ‘take it or leave it’ stance with regard to a lot of these products,” said Verdi.

Or there’s always a return to snail mail, for communications that are truly meant to be private.

Yahoo and Hotmail both told FOX 5 that their service does not sell ad space based on users’ email content.

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