Do Free Email Services Cut The Legs Out From Under Users' Online Privacy?

How secure do you think your email really is? Would you be surprised to learn that your inbox is scanned regularly, and not just by you?

Microsoft recently launched its humorously titled “Don’t Get Scroogled by Gmail” media campaign. The company commissioned a study that showed that 70 percent of consumers are unaware that free email service providers, such as Google, routinely scan their emails for information that allows them to deliver targeted advertisements.

Furthermore, 88 percent of respondents said they were opposed to this practice once they became aware of it. Now yes, Microsoft has an ulterior motive here. They’re not so much dedicated to your privacy as they are looking to convince users to switch from Gmail to Outlook. Let’s also not forget that Microsoft has long offered its own free email service, the all-but-forgotten Hotmail.

Google quickly responded to the media campaign taking swipes at Gmail with a statement of its own.

“No humans read your email or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information. An automated algorithm – similar to that used for features like Priority Inbox or spam filtering – determines which ads are shown.”

Look, whether your emails are being read in secret by a shady-looking guy with a sinister grin and the menacing laugh of a super villain or an “automated algorithm,” the fact remains that you are not the only one privy to the contents of your inbox.

And if you fail to use password best practices and leave your accounts vulnerable to hackers and fraudsters as well, the fallout will be the cyber equivalent of a nuclear detonation. Just ask the Bush family, who had multiple family accounts hacked in the past few days and have seen very private information exposed. Your online privacy will be crippled and data security non-existent. This can prove especially damaging if you use your email accounts for relaying sensitive business-related info. This isn’t just a problem for individuals, but for businesses, whose employee behaviors can undermine the security of the organization.

So, how can you protect your internet privacy? It’s best to take the “G.I. Joe” approach – knowing is half the battle. If you don’t actively read terms and conditions agreements and know exactly what you’re letting your service providers access, how can you know when they go too far?

John Sileo is an data security expert and keynote speaker on social media privacy and risk management. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent work on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.