Microsoft blasts Google for email snooping. But what about Outlook.com?

Microsoft's latest anti-Google campaign blasts Google for snooping on people's email in Gmail in order to serve up ads. One Microsoft critic, though, says that Microsoft does the same kind of snooping on Outlook.com, minus the ads. Who's right here?

Microsoft's new ad campaign points out that Google scans people's emails in Gmail, looking for key words that can help deliver micro-targeted ads. Microsoft has also set up a companion Web site, KeepYourEmailPrivate.com, which compares the privacy practices of Gmail to Outlook.com, claiming that Microsoft's Outlook.com mail service doesn't scan the contents of inboxes and use the words and content it finds there in order to deliver targeted ads.

A PDF Microsoft posted on the site offers more details about how it claims Gmail does all this, and provides what it says are examples of Gmail in action, including an ad for health insurance being delivered when someone tells a friend in an email he has high cholesterol, and an ad for a divorce lawyer being delivered when a woman tells a friend she is getting divorced.

Tim Worstall at Forbes takes Microsoft to task for the campaign, claiming that Microsoft essentially does the same thing because the company scans email in order to filter out spam and malware. He writes:

"So Microsoft is scanning the email I receive in Outlook and Google is scanning the email I receive in Gmail. The only difference is that Google uses said scanning to offer up ads. And I have to say that I can’t really see myself complaining about this. I’m a capitalist sorta guy and I’m perfectly happy with the idea of people making a buck or two off providing me with things that I desire. Indeed, if everyone is indeed scanning my emails then that Microsoft isn’t trying to make a buck of doing so makes me think they’re a little dim in fact."

Worstall has a quick wit, but he's off-target about what Microsoft does on Outlook.com. Scanning for malware and spam is different than scanning the actual content of messages and then keeping that content. Microsoft is looking for patterns than indicate spam and malware; Google is mining messages for content. In addition, Microsoft's point in its campaign is less that Google is making money off ads than it is that Google is collecting and saving extremely personal information about people, information that people justifiably have reason to believe should be kept private.

We've all had experiences with Google doing this in email. One that sticks out for me is when I was visiting California, my brother and his wife were vacationing in New Zealand and Australia, and he sent me an email describing a remarkable cave they had just visited, home to many thousands of bats.

After reading the email I found, at the top of my inbox, an ad for company specializing in ridding Californians of bats in their homes. Given that I live in Massachusetts, it was an odd ad to get. But Google had used my current location information, along with the mail from my brother about bats in a cave, and came up with that ad for me.

Needless to say, I didn't click. On the one hand the ad was exceedingly creepy, because it showed just how much information Google gleaned about me. On the other hand, it was reassuring to know how ineffective and crude such targeting can be.

Still, we can't count on ineffectiveness lasting forever. Microsoft is right in this campaign. And Outlook.com doesn't snoop on your email in the way that Gmail does.

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