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December 7th, 2015

Google’s ‘Inbox’: Should Privacy Advocates Be Concerned?

Google is getting ready to migrate all Gmail users to Inbox, which should be something of a concern for those worried about privacy, but no one seems to be noticing. The current efforts seem to be directed at users of the Gmail mobile app, but it’s my guess that desktop users of Gmail will be getting be getting the same treatment soon.

Google Inbox logoExcept for those using a free version of Android such as Replicant, and who install apps from free and open software sources such as F-Droid or Fossdroid, the protection of privacy on mobile devices, by design, is hopeless. Users have come to accept that most apps from Google’s store demand a whole slew of privileges whether they need them or not, and even when not being used, many apps happily go about the business of collecting and reporting everything they’re permitted to find out about us.

Even on traditional computers where we can have more control over our data, perhaps nowhere do we give up our privacy rights more often and as freely as with the big freemium online email services such as Gmail. This is no surprise, since the big players in the online email game, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, are all in the advertising business, where data mining leads to better targeting which results in more clicks. As any cellphone user can attest: it only gets worse on mobile. Again, not surprising since targeting and selling ads is the whole purpose of Android.

Which brings us back to Inbox, Google’s new gee-whiz Gmail replacement that’s now coming out of beta.

As an app on a mobile device, Inbox does offer an improved user experience with added features, most notably the “Smart Reply” function which reads emails and crafts replies. On a desktop accessing the service through a browser, however, Inbox doesn’t appear, at least not at first glance, to be a Gmail replacement as much as merely a new skin offering some, but not all, of the new capabilities found in the mobile app. (Desktop users who already have a Gmail account can take a test drive of Inbox, simply by going to the Inbox website while logged-in to their Google account. Be warned, however, that afterwards Google will nag you to use Inbox instead whenever you login to your Gmail account.)

On Saturday, Gordon Kelly at Forbes reported that Google has begun the process of migrating users to Inbox, and that Gmail users — presumably just those using the mobile app, although the article, and others, aren’t clear on this — are beginning to be presented with a notice upon logging in to their accounts that they are being “redirected” to the new service.

Gmail to Inbox redirect notice

Google has been offering some foreshadowing that this move was in the works for at least a couple of months. Mainstream tech websites, often a source of sponsored content, have been offering visions of the wonderful brave new world of email we would discover when the service was ready for prime time. Most of the hoopla has been focused on Smart Reply, with writers like Endgaget’s Mat Smith telling us, “I Let Google’s Autoreply Feature Answer My Emails for a Week.” According to the reports, white bread never tasted this good.

As useful as Inbox might be for mobile users, it appears to come with a price that so far I haven’t seen thoroughly addressed, even though Forbes’ Kelly hinted at it when he wrote, “Inbox’s deeper trawling of user data allows it to offer a much wider range of intelligent automated features….”

This should definitely raise a red flag among privacy advocates.

Even though this “deeper trawling” doesn’t affect the desktop as much as it does mobile, if only because metrics such as GPS determined location aren’t available, it’s a certainty that Google has figured out new and improved ways to mine data even from the old reliable desktop. But even if confined to mobile devices alone, Google will be collecting massive amounts of new, previously uncollected data and sharing some of what it collects with its advertising clients. Undoubtedly, Google will also continue to sing the same old song: Don’t worry, we’re not connecting your name to any data we collect or anything.

Mobile users should be used to it, however. With out-of-the-box mobile, there is no such thing as privacy. It’s a rigged game.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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13 comments to Google’s ‘Inbox’: Should Privacy Advocates Be Concerned?

  • Lizzi

    I hear little more than rhetoric about ‘oh gawd, Google made changes and they are attacking your privacy’.. What I don’t hear are actual details to inform me of what is actually happening. Some actual news from the ‘news’ article would be nice. This has all the feel of faux news. I don’t like reports that are really just attempts to manipulate my emotions. Nothing turns me off to a ‘news’ source more quickly than that.

  • Mike

    @Lizzi

    What part of the fact that they are reading your e-mail at a deep enough level to actually craft replies did you not understand?

    If you don’t understand the privacy implications of someone reading all of your e-mail…then no news article is going to help you.

  • Made my point for me Mike, thank you.

    Yeah, see here’s the deal on this…with me at least but I am sure hundreds of thousands of Gmail users have discovered.

    My business and my personal email is deeply rooted into The Chocolate Factory. Back in 2005, I thought Gmail was the answer to almost every problem I had, professionally anyway. I could access my email via my Blackberry (and how frickin’ cool is that?) I didn’t need to set up pop or imap, just follow the simple instructions and bam, there you go. Here’s your email all nice and neat.

    And it just kept getting better. More features and stylish GUIs and the functionality seemed to improve every day. Woah, wait…you mean I can have multiple gmail accounts on my phone? Really?

    Google I love you.

    But these days? Not so much. I’m looking for a good divorce lawyer now. Bottom line is…when I am basking in the warm glow of funcionality, I am sitting here with a number 4 bass hook hanging out of the side of my mouth.

  • Henry Kurth

    This web site is about “Keeping FOSS Free.” How is whining about Google “keeping FOSS Free”? I bet most readers of this site use a Google phone; What privacy issues are at risk here? Please enlighten me.

  • Henry Kurth

    The maestro says its Mozart, but it sounds like bubblegum.

  • Mike

    If you use Google products: You’ve already thrown away your privacy.

    Too bad most people have no clue.

  • tracyanne

    gmail is a way for me to remain somewhat anonymous. By having registered with a false name with 2 accounts which link to each other, as the secondary email, and only using those accounts to register with sites that send me email, and only accessing gmail via VPN.

    So Google are free to collect all that information, by reading those emails from sites I have no interest in the emails from, and storing it. So I get several hundred emails a day, on my gmail accounts, most of which I never see or read.

    So Google are free to target ads, which I never see, at the fake persona their data grab has indexed.

    For actual personal stuff I use one or another of my email addresses hosted on my email server.

  • Mike

    In many places Google will not let you register a gmail account without providing a cell phone number “for security”.

    Two factor authentication is nothing more than a play to collect yet more identifying and tracking information.

  • Lizzi

    Slightly off topic in still on the theme of gaslighting security measures, everyone who has used a fingerprint reader for their phone or tablet has been fingerprinted by a company who will give that info the the federal government. I suspect the same may be true of all touchscreens that people use with their fingers as well.

  • Lizzi

    There are no free lunches.

  • tracyanne

    @Lizzi, correct, that’s why it’s important people understand the pitfalls of providing personally identifying information to the likes of gmail and facebook.

    If it’s “free” then you pay with something more valuable than money.

  • Mike

    Beware of anyone trying to push biometrics as the solution to your security woes.

    Lately there has been a lot of BS out there claiming we need to get rid of passwords and that biometrics are the answer.

    Remember that biometrics are just another password once stored in a computer (and just as easily stolen). What makes them dangerous is that they are a password you can never change and once stolen, they can never be reclaimed.

    So-called security “experts” pushing biometrics shouldn’t be allowed near anything important or valuable. They are incompetent buffoons.