Emails are a huge part of our daily lives.

For a lot of people, our emails are the first thing we check in the morning, while others use it to communicate with colleagues, friends, and family all over the world.

The advent of email made it easy for us to send and receive messages in a nanosecond and reach all four corners of the world with our words.

We’d happily pay a hefty price for the ease and convenience of email.

But at what cost?

Source: https://www.cmo.com/adobe-digital-insights/articles/2016/9/30/adobe-email-survey-2016.html

Most people send and receive emails through third-party access, whether that’s Microsoft, Google, Apple, or any other email provider. Data is then held on their servers, routed by their protocols, and encrypted in a way they see fit.

It’s a deal we happily adhere to because we get an important service in return and, for the most part, we have some level of trust in these providers.

But if you’ve been following any email-related news recently, you’ll know that the trust that those email providers have taken for granted is starting to waver.

In one case it became clear that third-party apps were accessing user emails to personalize ads, while in another case Microsoft was called out for purposely sifting through a user’s inbox in part of an internal leak investigation.

These two cases might sit in stark contrast, but at the core the activity is the same – someone read through someone else’s emails.

There is one slight difference, though.

In the Microsoft case, it was a real-life team of people reading through the emails, while the third-party apps use technology to scan the content and key phrases in emails and use those to serve relevant ads and personalized content.

Initially, the difference is as clear as night and day.

People and computers are two completely separate things, right? But is the automated scanning of email really that different to a real-life person having a good old browse through your inbox?

The third-party apps tend to use artificial intelligence (AI) to sift through the content of emails for specific words, and computers are getting smarter and smarter by the day.

Source: https://www.cbinsights.com/research/microsoft-google-ai-earnings-transcripts/

Take Google, for example, that has been heavily investing in AI technologies for a whole roster of its apps, including its email services.

But the AI technologies being implemented aren’t looking for arguments you’ve had with colleagues or office gossip, they’re looking for specific cases where they can leverage their findings to serve you more ads.

Reports have shown that users who regularly sign up for price comparison emails and automated travel-itinerary planners were at the highest risk of having their emails read.

How Email Providers Have Been Getting Away with It

It’s highly unlikely we’d grant our nearest and dearest permission to look through our emails, so why would we hand over the privilege to huge corporations such as email providers?

For starters, these email providers are giving us something in return.

It might seem like giving up the content of our emails in return for actually being able to send emails in the first place is a small price to pay.

But email providers and third-party apps have another sneaky way of getting around it: they don’t specifically ask users whether they could in fact read their emails; instead they use questionable wording in their end-user license agreements.

In Yahoo’s privacy policy, they reserve the right to look through emails to “protect the rights, property, or personal safety of Yahoo, its users and the public.” Google’s policy basically says the same thing, claiming it will access data “if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to protect against harm to the rights, property, or safety of Google.”

And Apple’s is not much different either, claiming that they will disclose user content “if we determine that for purposes of national security, law enforcement, or other issues of public importance, disclosure is necessary or appropriate.”

When providers phrase it like this, highlighting things like safety, protection, and national security, it might not seem so bad. In fact, some people might actually be okay with their email provider checking out their email.

Why?

Why You Might Want Email Providers Reading Your Emails

Today, everything is about convenience.

We’ll pay good money to get things quickly and anything that makes our lives easier is a big plus.

And, by reading your emails, providers can really help you out in that respect.

For example, Google knows when your flight is leaving and whether it’s been delayed based on the emails received from the airline, and the Google Calendar app automatically adds restaurant bookings to your schedule.

How to keep your emails safe

Pretty nifty, right?

But when it comes to serving ads, it gets a bit hazy.

Do we really want our email providers using the contents of our inbox (which, let’s face it, is one of our most sacred online spaces) to try and predict what ads we want to see?

When this recently came to light, there was understandably an outcry, and big email providers like Google addressed it quickly.

In response to the news, the tech giant claimed they would stop reading through people’s emails to serve them relevant ads later this year, so we might be seeing small steps in the right direction over the next twelve months.

In addition to the huge data breach on Facebook with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it looks like Google will also pledge to delve deeper into what their third-party apps and add-ons can and can’t access when it comes to user emails.

Just like Facebook has promised to audit app developer’s data practices, Google might do the same.

The resulting outcry from the latest news on this topic has shown that people aren’t as comfortable as providers thought they were with them sifting through emails – and who can blame them really?

The vague privacy policies give us no real information about what providers are and aren’t looking for in our inboxes, but ultimately it’s up to the user to decide what they’re okay with.

If you use Gmail, you can edit your settings to determine which apps can and can’t have access to your emails, giving some of the power back to the user.

Online privacy is such a huge concern at the moment and with something as sacred as our inboxes, it might just be time to take back control.