Through the intercession of a friend, I got an email account on Google’s Gmail beta. That was a couple weeks ago, and so far I’ve sent exactly three messages and received three. If I like it, I’ll make it my primary address, replacing my venerable but spam-bombarded Well account. The controversial aspect of the service is automatic text analysis of incoming messages so that Google can deliver ads tied to keywords it finds in your friends’ and business associates’ notes to you. That hits the privacy nerve big time. This morning, I got to see how this works in practice. A friend sent a note mentioning “Lightning Field,” an amazing-sounding art installation in New Mexico. Cool! On rereading the note, here’s what I see on the page’s right-hand margin:
First thought: Look at that!
Second thought: Interesting that of all the things mentioned in the note, the only hit was on lightning. And the results are obviously noncommercial; maybe a feature of the beta to deliver sites relevant to keywords rather than ads for now.
Third thought: The privacy concern is real. How do I feel about even an automated analysis of messages that *must be* traceable to me or my friends if someone decides there’s a basis for interest (not to be too vague there, but the first issue here is the USA Patriot-era expectation that the FBI and other counterterrorist police will cast a wide net in the search for people thinking about or writing about or contemplating the wrong things; and the second is that textual analysis has been a major challenge for the police agencies, and here someone has created a service that probably accomplishes a lot of useful work for them).