It's a generous offer. But should we take Google up on it?
Right now, people who use Web-based e-mail can't squeeze that much in the cramped 4 megabytes or so that Google's competitors offer their nonpaying subscribers. What that means is that the impact of a security breach or privacy incident is sharply limited; your entire online life wouldn't be on public display in the case of one. With Gmail, on the other hand, you might have 20 years' worth of correspondence protected only by the thin shield of a password.
My concern is not about Google's management, who have been upstanding corporate citizens. They've maintained a firewall between advertising and search results, and have resisted the temptation to follow Yahoo's "paid inclusion" lead. Google has stood up to censorship and, in general, has alerted its readers when it's legally required to yank sites from its index.
Still, there are good reasons to be leery of Gmail, which requires you to trust the security of a computer system over which you have no control. If you keep your correspondence on your home computer, you can encrypt your old e-mail or squirrel it away on CD-ROMs that won't be accessible to a malicious hacker. That won't work, if everything's online.
In August 1999, a bug in a script used by Microsoft's Hotmail let anyone log in to any of 50 million accounts without typing a password first.
If you're using Mac OS X or third-party utilities like PGP for Windows, you can "securely delete" any file, meaning that it will be repeatedly overwritten until it's unrecoverable. But if you delete an e-mail message from your Gmail account, it may exist forever--remaining permanently accessible to police armed with a Patriot Act order or your spouse's divorce lawyer, wielding a subpoena. (Google refuses to discuss how many subpoenas it already has received for users' search terms.)
And there are the privacy issues. Gmail works by serving related ads on Web pages that display e-mail. Google's terms of service say its servers scan the content of e-mail messages with no human intervention and that "no e-mail content or other personally identifiable information will be provided to advertisers."
If you delete an e-mail message from your Gmail account, it may exist forever.
For its part, Google says it is "committed to the highest standards of user protection."
"We consider ourselves a company that does no evil, and we take user privacy seriously," Wayne Rosing, Google's vice president of engineering, told me last week. "We have very strict internal rules, even among Google employees who are able to access confidential data. It would harm Google enormously, if we behaved badly with personal data. I don't believe we ever will."
While Gmail's initial version may not be for everyone, Internet users should still be able to make their own choices. Unfortunately, some regulatory enthusiasts are trying to ban Gmail, something that makes as much sense as outlawing compilers, just because someone might use them to create surveillanceware.
Last week, the U.K. group Privacy International filed a complaint against Google, saying Gmail violated European data collection laws. A few days later, it and other sincere but misguided activists wrote to Google, saying Gmail should be shut down or suspended. So much for preserving consumer choice.
If Google wanted to veer in a more privacy-protective direction, it could look to the intriguing model of Vancouver, Canada-based Hush Communications, which runs the Hushmail Web mail system. Unlike rivals, Hush encrypts mail sent between Hush users. It uses a Java-based technique that allows for only its intended recipient--and not Hush employees--to decrypt a scrambled e-mail message. If a subpoena arrives, or if a security breach ever happens, disclosure would be limited.
Hush offers 2-megabyte-limit free accounts and pay accounts, and it said 900,000 accounts have been created since its May 1999 launch. The company also lets users store files in an encrypted volume and this week plans to announce a feature that permits encrypted volumes to be shared among multiple users.
Hush's patent No. 6,154,543 covers some aspects of encrypted e-mail. The company said it'd happy to license it to Google. Originally, Hush Chief Technology Officer Brian Smith said, the patent was quite broad, but "we have narrowed the patent to apply only to e-mail and messaging systems. The modifications were accepted but don't yet appear" on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site.
True, if the archived e-mail is encrypted, Gmail won't be able to search message bodies very efficiently, but users might be willing to give up that feature and even pay a monthly charge in exchange for additional security.
"We'll think about it," said Google's Rosing. "We don't have any explicit plans right now...If someone really needs to encrypt a lot of e-mail, maybe they should be putting that on their laptop. We're trying to provide a service that offers some utility to our users. If you change the service to take away all the value of the service, you're back where you started."
Maybe. But until that happens, would-be users of Gmail or any similar service should recognize that their so-called free e-mail comes at a price.
Declan McCullagh is CNET News.com's chief political correspondent. He spent more than a decade in Washington, D.C., chronicling the busy intersection between technology and politics. Previously, he was the Washington bureau chief for Wired News, and a reporter for Time.com, Time magazine and HotWired. McCullagh has taught journalism at American University and been an adjunct professor at Case Western University.
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