A couple of days ago, I posted a link to a video by Microsoft parodying Gmail – the Gmail man. In it, the video pokes fun at Google’s habit of making advertisements more relevant to its user base by extracting keywords from emails and using them to serve ads that match those keywords.
I decided to ask a member of the regular public what they thought of such policy – my wife. We were driving in the car and I asked her a question: “What do you think about all of the ads that you see in your Gmail account? The ones that appear on the side of the window? Do you think they’d be useful to you if they were about topics that were of interest to you?” I then rattled off a couple of her interests.
“Uh,” she said and thought about. “I guess I’d like that but I never see them. I just see my message and my background image and never pay attention to those ads.” (I bet a lot of people say stuff like that).
I then asked a follow up question. “What do you think if Gmail were reading your email messages, looking for keywords, so they could match up to give you more relevant ads?” I explained that this was an automatic, not human process, and that they were using it to match words-to-topics.
“What?” she exclaimed in disbelief. “I don’t think they should be doing that!”
Based upon my sample size of 1 member of the general public, I bet almost all people would have issues with Gmail doing keyword extraction.
True - most people would be "outraged" at the thought, but then that's just an initial emotional reaction, probably coerced by the question to form a conformational bias ideal for a headline.
I'm guessing people generally don't think about it, in much the same way they don't think about Stores tracking their purchases through the use of loyalty cards, or asking for Zip codes at the point of sale. Or perhaps the tracking cookies on their PC, or even the browser history, or the location data supplied to apps on their phone, or mountains of personal data foraged from Social Networks.
Privacy? Really? But then most of what these people are doing on all these systems is pretty mundane, and the most clandestine activity by the tracker of the trackee is simply to target ads at them.