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A few years ago in an effort to reduce my digital foot print I closed all my Gmail and other mail accounts. I started using a friends email domain for my email until I got my own domain. I’ve yet to invest the time and money to host my own email server, something I’d like to do at some point, but getting off Yahoo and Gmail was a good first step towards controlling my own privacy. In retrospect, I think any one with a passing interest in digital privacy would have to say, “Well played, Google. Well played.” When they introduced GMail in 2005 Google offered what then seemed like a hugeantic amount of storage (1 gig). While the other guys were cracking down on size limits and cluttering up the inbox with fancy themes and ads Google was offering more storage and a stripped down, minimal interface. The choice was clear to me and virtually everyone I knew. We dropped Hotmail like a hot potato and went for Gmail. It even became a point of fashion to have one. Anyone still using Hotmail was looked at with amused disgust. In any case 2005 was a world away from the growing awareness about digital privacy and what exactly corporations do with all our data. Now, Gmail just seems like a honey pot designed to draw us in with massive storage sizes and minimal ads in exchange for Google being able to comb through our email to sell whatever booty they find within it. As Benjamin Mako Hill writes in his blog on his website it doesn’t matter whether or not you yourself use Gmail because most of your friends do. The result of this ubiquity is that no matter how hard you try to avoid it Google still has a lot of your email correspondence. Hill notes that about at third of the email in his inbox is from Gmail users!

Hill writes, “Despite the fact that I spend hundreds of dollars a year and hours of work to host my own email server, Google has about half of my personal email! Last year, Google delivered 57% of the emails in my inbox that I replied to. They have delivered more than a third of all the email I’ve replied to every year since 2006 and more than half since 2010. On the upside, there is some indication that the proportion is going down. So far this year, only 51% of the emails I’ve replied to arrived from Google.”

I imagine my numbers are similar given how many of my contacts use Gmail. The TL;DR of this is that Google realized, much like other social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, that the more ubiquitous the service the larger your dragnet. Even privacy savvy folks like myself can’t avoid being caught unless we stop using this service which is ultimately impractical. What interests me most about this is how email is still thought as somehow different or less worthy of privacy than postal mail. What if postal mail was still a dominant form of communication and Google operated a competing mail service but was storing copies of all our letters? Even to me that idea seems far more chilling and yet it is the same thing.