Your emails are all scanned—and that's what you agreed to

Aug 23, 2013 by David Tuffley, The Conversation
Legally, you’ve agreed to have your emails scanned – but what about morally? Credit: enggul

According to Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, "all human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret". It is in our nature to want privacy, yet in the internet age, it has never been easier to access the details of our private lives.

In May 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden lifted the lid on just how far are able to reach into our online lives. The news came as a shock to many, though agencies such as the US National Security Agency (NSA) have had this capability for years.

A recent article in The Guardian highlights the dynamic tension in this debate. Consumer Watchdog, a US-based advocacy group, has taken umbrage with Google's admission that the content of Gmail messages are automatically scanned. Suits and counter-suits are flying back and forth.

Email providers have given themselves the legal right to scan people's email by including it in their Terms of Service to which people must explicitly agree before they can use the service.

For example, Gmail's privacy policy states:

We use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer you tailored content – like giving you more relevant search results and ads.

None of us like to think it's the case but our email has always been scanned – not only by Google but almost every other email provider, by employers concerned about proprietary leaks, and by intelligence agencies too.

Email providers have no voyeuristic interest in the day-to-day lives of their users. They are using automatic content scanners to weed out spam and to give them the means to place targeted advertisements on your screen, the price you pay for this otherwise free service.

Credit: estherase

Intelligence agencies are not interested in the the lives of either. They sift through the torrent of data looking for covert criminal and terrorist activity, information that might prevent the flight you are travelling on from blowing up mid-air, or to apprehend organised criminals.

Great expectations

The central issue in all this is that people have an expectation of online where that privacy has never actually existed. The internet is a public place and we should adjust our expectations accordingly. If we do not say anything on the internet that we would not say standing on a soapbox at Speakers' Corner, we have nothing to worry about.

The question is, do people have a moral right to privacy? Arguably they do, but it is a case of the collective good outweighing people's individual rights, at least in terms of preventing terrorist attacks and curbing organised crime.

So there is a line that must be drawn, but no clear place to draw it. Case by case, we need to weigh up where the interests of the greater good ends and the individual's right to privacy begins.

A disturbing trend for some is the recent move by Google to cross-reference and aggregate data from across its range of services. Google Now – a mobile app that acts as an intelligent personal assistant – combines information from your email and calendar, the directions you get from Google Maps, and so on.

Designed to work with or without Google Glass, it uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions on your behalf.

For some, this is one step closer to Nirvana. To others it is a sinister plot to strip us of what little privacy remains.

A scan-free email service?

So what are your alternatives if you want email privacy? The news is not encouraging. All of the major providers scan email contents for commercial purposes and may be compelled to pass on information to the government. There are anonymous email providers, but it is doubtful whether any of them can guarantee complete protection against a determined intelligence agency.

These providers include Tor Mail, FastMail, Send Anonymous Email, Anonymouse, Mailinator, Anonymous Speech,Hushmail, Send Email, Hide My Ass!, and Guerrilla Mail. This list is indicative, not exhaustive and makes no recommendations.

As Márquez observes, humans have an implicit need for privacy. He goes so far as to say that each of us has a secret life, one that we reveal to no-one and which is the expression of our essential self – perhaps our best self.

It is vital to realise that privacy on the internet is an illusion. All we have is the relative privacy of knowing that our words are mixed in with a trillion other words. Unless we are up to no good, no-one will be paying any attention to them.

The worst that will happen is that you might see an ad for a discounted Cruise Holiday next to the you wrote about how stressed you are at work.

Explore further: Hungary's Orban says will scrap draft internet tax law

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baudrunner
2.3 / 5 (12) Aug 23, 2013
What is actually pretty hilarious to me is that people don't go online to read advertisements, and we certainly don't need our emails scanned so that advertising can be customized to our tastes because I, for one, can honestly say that in all the years that I have been online pretty much every day, I have clicked on ads fewer than a half dozen times over all, and then only out of curiosity, with absolutely no intention of buying anything. To me, the internet is still the information highway it was intended to be - a research and learning tool.

So basically they're wasting their time. And in my opinion they are breaking the law. After all, if they are allowed to scan our emails, then why does a detective require a court order to wiretap someone's telephone? There is an obvious inconsistency here.
sirchick
5 / 5 (2) Aug 23, 2013
i just run ad block plus, never see adverts. So they can customize their adverts all they like. I could care less.
Argiod
1.4 / 5 (11) Aug 23, 2013
The only people who seem to have any right to privacy are those who are sticking their noses into our business. As with electricity: power in DC only runs one way...
dtxx
1.4 / 5 (10) Aug 23, 2013
Tor Mail is now known to be compromised by law enforcement and other agencies. Don't use it if you are being naughty.
Urgelt
3.6 / 5 (5) Aug 23, 2013
Welp, that sums up the pro-authoritarian viewpoint quite nicely.

By placing this argument into the passive voice, the 'scanner' isn't identified. So what happens when we phrase it into the active voice?

We have agreed to permit our communications providers to scan our communications in order to provide better communications services to us.

What did we *not* agree to? We did not agree to an alphabet-soup of Federal and other agencies to capture, store and read our communications without a warrant, creating a body of law which we aren't permitted to know about, with a 'due process' which is devoid of adversarial argumentation or transparency. We did not agree to be lied to by our President or by the leadership of the NSA. We did not agree to making any legal challenge of this authoritarian nightmare impossible. Those little things aren't in the terms of service to which we agreed with our ISPs.
rug
1.3 / 5 (12) Aug 23, 2013
What did we *not* agree to? We did not agree to an alphabet-soup of Federal and other agencies to capture, store and read our communications without a warrant, creating a body of law which we aren't permitted to know about, with a 'due process' which is devoid of adversarial argumentation or transparency. We did not agree to be lied to by our President or by the leadership of the NSA. We did not agree to making any legal challenge of this authoritarian nightmare impossible. Those little things aren't in the terms of service to which we agreed with our ISPs.


Yes we did, it's called the patriot act and homeland security act. Not enough people raised up to battle these acts before they were placed into law. If you didn't fight it you have no right to bitch about how it's used.
LarryD
1 / 5 (2) Aug 23, 2013
I seem to remember a TV prog (where the names were not given) where a QC chap, working for an email provider, was 'doing his rounds' when he saw a newly installed door. Having access to most places he tried to open the door but he was denied access. After making several enquiries he was still unable to find out what was behind the door. I cannot remember the detail now but he did make an unauthorised access and found what he thought was military installed monitoring equipment. Obviously lost his job but it does make one wonder how many of these 'special rooms' there are.
rug
1 / 5 (8) Aug 23, 2013
Wasn't there a thing about AT&T and the NSA not that long ago?
megmaltese
1.5 / 5 (8) Aug 23, 2013
What is actually pretty hilarious to me is that people don't go online to read advertisements, and we certainly don't need our emails scanned so that advertising can be customized to our tastes because I, for one, can honestly say that in all the years that I have been online pretty much every day, I have clicked on ads fewer than a half dozen times over all, and then only out of curiosity, with absolutely no intention of buying anything.

So basically they're wasting their time. And in my opinion they are breaking the law. After all, if they are allowed to scan our emails, then why does a detective require a court order to wiretap someone's telephone? There is an obvious inconsistency here.


Completely agree, using Gmail since ages and clicked ads maybe 10 times.
The real news is, anyway, that we are all controlled, BB is here, since years.
We just don't know it yet.
We're getting used to the idea, it will take years, but we will.
Orwell was so on the right track.
vidyunmaya
1 / 5 (10) Aug 23, 2013
Searching Minds-Guiding spirit. Spectators World do not understand observer. Observers do not understand Nature and Divine function . Where lies the end of logic ?
Protect Knowledge base- Save earth planet and life Support. Space for Peace must evolve Common Living index.Intellectually hollowed Societies have less future and become more
in-secure Minds-Potential conflict generation must be avoided.
Claudius
1 / 5 (9) Aug 23, 2013


Yes we did, it's called the patriot act and homeland security act. Not enough people raised up to battle these acts before they were placed into law. If you didn't fight it you have no right to bitch about how it's used.


When the people who voted it into law (The Congress) admit they did not even read it. With this in mind, would it have mattered if people had bitched? Also remember the atmosphere created by the mainstream media and the government at the time and since, as Hermann Goering said:

"the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
zaxxon451
5 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2013
"Unless we are up to no good, no-one will be paying any attention to them."

"Up to no good" can mean a lot of things depending on who is in power.
rug
1 / 5 (8) Aug 24, 2013
When the people who voted it into law (The Congress) admit they did not even read it.

There were lots of us that understood the dangers involved with either of these acts were introduced. We bitched and yelled with no good to show for it. There simply wasn't enough of us.
With this in mind, would it have mattered if people had bitched?

Yes! Our elected officials know their jobs depend on us voting for them. If they don't do what we want we don't vote for them. It's that simple.
Also remember the atmosphere created by the mainstream media and the government at the time and since

And that atmosphere disabled your ability to reason? Well, looks like your weren't the only one. Half this country is unable to reason.
Kron
1.6 / 5 (13) Aug 24, 2013
rug
1 / 5 (8) Aug 24, 2013
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtJ29UoedkM&sns=em

HAHAHA now thats funny.
yorktime
2 / 5 (4) Aug 24, 2013
The worst that will happen is that you might see an ad for a discounted Cruise Holiday next to the email you wrote about how stressed you are at work.


Yeah, until that unmarked white van across the street abducts you in the middle of the night. They found the text message you half-hardheartedly wrote about wanting to kill all your coworkers in a bloody rampage after that stressful day. Keep some lube close with that outlook, Mr. Author.
peter09
1 / 5 (4) Aug 24, 2013
Well - If you are Innocent you have nothing to fear ----

I know that I am totally innocent ...... .. You ... I am not so sure .....
Signed
Herr Flick.
alfie_null
1 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2013
The question "do people have a moral right to privacy?" is irrelevant. Morals are not a significant part of any of the political structure that controls these things. Not trying to be cynical, just pragmatic. My morals aren't the same as your morals. When we both decide to be governed by the same entity, we get politics.

If people cared enough about privacy, we'd have widespread adoption of end to end encryption (e.g. pgp). Figuring out how to use it is less complex than learning to drive. So they don't. So why the churn?
PhyOrgSux
1.7 / 5 (12) Aug 24, 2013
If people cared enough about privacy, we'd have...etc...

and
Your emails are all scanned—and that's what you agreed to...blablabla...


Sorry but IMHO these sort of statements have the same logic as in "if she would have worn a longer skirt, she would not have gotten raped". So never mind that she had a "moral right" to expect not to be raped.

Although in principle I agree people should use PGP/GPG, you cannot use it with every system. And it does not necessarily stop service providers such as GMail and Yahoo from seeing the text of your email.

Besides that not all of us have agreed to have our emails scanned (only those using the major email service providers like Google have probably agreed to that) - yet our emails are likely getting scanned by the government. Except of course those encrypted with e.g. PGP...
PhyOrgSux
1.7 / 5 (12) Aug 24, 2013
There were lots of us that understood the dangers involved with either of these acts were introduced. We bitched and yelled with no good to show for it. There simply wasn't enough of us.


It may not always be because of the amount of people.

For example we had this kind of a case:
1. We had over 100K people demonstrating against the latest Iraq war before it started and yet The Gov't went and started it anyway.
2. During the decade between the first and second gulf wars, the US media spent more effort in demonizing Saddam Hussein than what the European media did. As a result we got a discrepancy between ourselves and our EU allies (who had more domestic opposition against the war due to people who had not been conditioned to see a need for it).

In the end, the media is your mouthpiece to the public. If the major players in media put up a storm and support your cause, you may only need a handful of supporters. But still if The Gov't does not want to change, good luck.
Claudius
1 / 5 (10) Aug 24, 2013
When the people who voted it into law (The Congress) admit they did not even read it.

There were lots of us that understood the dangers involved with either of these acts were introduced. We bitched and yelled with no good to show for it. There simply wasn't enough of us.
With this in mind, would it have mattered if people had bitched?

Yes! Our elected officials know their jobs depend on us voting for them. If they don't do what we want we don't vote for them. It's that simple..


Consider that the Congress has less than 10% approval. What does that tell you about the effectiveness of voting? Perhaps the voting system is rigged, as many suspect. So if it is rigged, exactly how is our not voting for them supposed to work? It's that simple.
rug
1.1 / 5 (8) Aug 24, 2013
The voting system is not rigged, the problem is people are voting back in the same people that messed up in the first place. No government can stand against the people it governs for long. The people always win when there is enough people standing up for themselves. I think a perfect example of this is ancient Rome or even the beginning of the US.

It's simple math. People > Government.
Claudius
1 / 5 (10) Aug 24, 2013
The voting system is not rigged, the problem is people are voting back in the same people that messed up in the first place. No government can stand against the people it governs for long. The people always win when there is enough people standing up for themselves. I think a perfect example of this is ancient Rome or even the beginning of the US.

It's simple math. People > Government.


Oh, really?

https://www.youtu...Y2tnwExs
Claudius
1 / 5 (9) Aug 24, 2013
On voting fraud, here is another demonstration:

https://www.youtu...YyiyWOH4

If you still think elections are honest, have you ever considered the benefits of owning your own bridge? Just think, you could erect toll booths and easily recoup your investment in a short time. I have a bridge just for you in Brooklyn.
Kron
1.6 / 5 (14) Aug 24, 2013
Why was it up to the people to disagree with having their privacy invaded, instead of, agreeing to have their privacy invaded?

If it were up to people to stand up and say: 'we want everyone to be monitored', the bill never would have passed.

The bill passed because it was implemented in a way in which it was almost impossible for it to not have passed. They worked out the probababilities well before the proposal. The government knew, with a relatively high degree of certainty, what the outcome would be.

The bill passed because it was designed to pass. Anyone thinking differently underestimates the power of strategic planning.
Kron
1.6 / 5 (14) Aug 24, 2013
You have no idea how powerful the world leaders are. They are the architects of civilization. Once the new gun laws pass you will lose all power to fight back. And the sad part, you think the laws are designed to protect you, when in truth it is about rendering you defenseless.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (6) Aug 24, 2013
You have no idea how powerful the world leaders are. They are the architects of civilization. Once the new gun laws pass you will lose all power to fight back.
Actually the banksters and their puppet cabals could be taken out with a dozen well-aimed drones. I wonder why that hasn't yet happened on a small scale. With global networks, access to drone killing power is in the hands of those with the most brains, not brawn. First drones will be disabled, but later they will be reprogrammed with new missions in flight. Paranoid governments will always keep their backdoors in place, allowing Chinese access through the NSA backdoor as was the case in Google's email hijacking

Now that presidents have declared their right to kill anyone, anywhere for any reason or no reason at all it's really a free-for-all decade of drone death from the sky. No wonder banksters have built an underground city in the Appalachian mountains

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