There has been a fair amount of response generated by Microsoft’s ongoing Scroogled campaign. By highlighting what they claim are Google’s invasive breaches of privacy, the hope is to pull more people back away from Gmail and into the newly redesigned Outlook.com. The motives are fairly straightforward and should color our response to the ads rather strongly, but do they have a good argument on this topic?
As the third stage of the Scroogled campaign begins, the second having been pushed along by a series of TV ads airing since November 2012, we have a basic and easily understood claim to work with. Google scans every bit of information in your email to pull out keywords, then serves up paid advertising to you as you check your mail.
So far, so good. That’s exactly what Google is doing. They haven’t precisely advertised that as a major feature, but it isn’t a well-kept secret either. Those ads at the top of your inbox are certainly not assigned randomly, after all.
Microsoft’s indication that this is a major breach of privacy is where we start to run into subjective interpretations.
There is already some precedent for automated scanning of emails. Without this sort of behavior it would be impossible to create, implement, and improve spam filters. If nothing else, one must admit that Gmail has amazing spam filters. All that Google is doing here, in theory, is taking that information and plugging it into an ad-selection algorithm while also recording it as part of the overall picture for future marketing efforts.
Nobody really thinks that Google employees are actively scanning your inbox or that they are handing out personal correspondence. The trick here is that they can turn your personal life into profit.
The point of the Scroogled campaign is to raise awareness of this practice while promoting Microsoft’s own product. It is hardly a public service, but it does bring up some important points. Many users are completely unaware that they are being targeted by this sort of invasive behavior. The majority of those who have Google’s practices brought to their attention seem to be shocked and offended at the perceived intrusion.
All that can really be done here is an assessment of what privacy really means. For some it is enough to know that they are not being singled out and that the data being tracked is not easily traced back to any individual user. For others the idea that they could be unexpectedly targeted by advertisements based on what should be completely confidential correspondence is a big problem.
Sentiment seems to be in favor of greater privacy in all forms of online activity these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Ads tend to be the way that sites stay in business and this is just one of the more effective ways to provide them. It would take a huge outcry to make any sort of change to Google’s position and the signatures that Microsoft has managed to get together on their Scroogled petition don’t even come close so far.