Business your connection to The Boston Globe

Where are you now?

Your life isn't just on your personal computer. Your personal info is not all over the Internet, too.

Even the smartest people have a knack for overlooking the obvious. That's how Sergey Brin, cofounder of the Internet search service Google, has lately earned the wrath of the same computer users who once idolized him.

Brin takes the credit, or the blame, for Google's plan to offer Gmail, a new, free Web-based e-mail service that can hold up to a gigabyte of personal e-mail messages--a lifetime's worth for most people.

''It was originally designed for me, basically," said Brin, who wanted a more convenient way to deal with the roughly five gigabytes of e-mail in his own inbox.

But the idea has infuriated Internet privacy groups like London-based Privacy International, which has filed complaints with the European Union and 16 European nations in an effort to force major changes in the service. Gmail's critics say that in its present form, Gmail will lead to a vast concentration of personal information onto a single Internet service.

Brin said he was caught by surprise by the flood of criticism. ''In retrospect, obviously I shouldn't have been," he said.

Indeed, the outcry over Gmail has alerted many Internet users to a truth that should have been obvious all along: Little by little, people are moving more and more of their lives onto the network. Data that people once kept on paper or on their desktop hard drives are now housed thousands of miles away on remote servers.

It's not just e-mail. We swap instant messages or post comments on Web-based bulletin boards and blogs. Millions of us join global entertainment networks to play games against challengers on the other side of the world. Millions of us use Web-based software to invest our savings, pay our bills, and file our tax returns.

In each case, some far-off computer collects a significant chunk of information about us, information that could be abused by criminals, profit-hungry businesses, or overzealous cops.

''If you kept that information in your desk drawer, the cops would have to come and knock on your door," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy think tank in Washington, D.C. ''Now that you're keeping it online with a third party, the cops can go to them."

Schwartz and other privacy advocates have been talking about this issue for years, but more people are listening, thanks to the Gmail announcement.

The sheer size of the Gmail service is one reason. Other free Web-based e-mail systems, like those run by Microsoft Corp. or Yahoo Inc., offer just a few megabytes of storage space, only enough to store a few weeks or months of messages. Many people use their Web mail accounts as handy supplements to their main e-mail service.

But with a whole gigabyte on offer, many people could choose to route all of their messages through the Gmail service. That means giving Google control over a vast concentration of personal data.

If that wasn't scary enough, Google then announced its plan to analyze every word of these e-mails. Actually, that's less shocking than it sounds. All free e-mail systems scan for viruses and unwanted spam messages. But Gmail goes further. First, it uses Google's renowned search technology to create an index of all of your mail messages. It's a valuable service that allows the user to search his entire e-mail collection in a split second.

But Google uses the same index to select advertisements and display them on your computer screen. If you swap e-mails with a friend about a story on last night's ABC News broadcast, you might get an ad for the ABC News website.

''The ads are going to be related to whatever is in the message," said Brin.

The whole system is automated; humans don't read the user's mail, and no information is extracted that could be used to create a personal profile of the Gmail user. But the very idea of analyzing private messages caused an explosion of outrage. For instance, Privacy International's complaint asserts that the Gmail system is a clear violation of European Union privacy law.

Critics fret over other issues. For instance, suppose someone chooses not to use Gmail, for fear of having his e-mails stored on Google's computers. That won't help him if he has to send a message to somebody else who does use Gmail.

Big Internet companies like Google must regularly back up their stored data to guard against equipment breakdowns. How long will the backup copies be kept? Even if an Gmail user deletes all of his messages, the backup copies could be kept for weeks or months.

''We're going to make all reasonable efforts to delete it as quickly as possible," Brin said.

What if the government wants to investigate your e-mail messages? Under a 1986 law, police would need a search warrant to get any e-mails composed in the past 180 days. That means convincing a judge that a crime has probably been committed. To get a subpoena, you only need to assert that a crime may have been committed.

And a subpoena is all the cops need to read messages more than 180 days old. So if you keep years' worth of messages on Gmail, you've made life simpler for investigators.

''You've completely lost your Fourth Amendment protection by storing it on Google," said Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Apart from privacy, there's the matter of reliability. Most e-mail users download their messages onto a local machine. But if they switch to Gmail and keep all of their messages with Google, they'll be totally dependent on the reliability of the Google network. The average user of Yahoo Mail or Microsoft Hotmail can live without it for an hour or two. If Gmail catches on, it'll become as vital as the telephone network, so reliability will have to be absolute.

But it's important to look past the Gmail controversy. Apart from Google's plan to analyze its user's messages, every criticism of Gmail applies to other Web-based services as well. Larry Grothaus, lead product manager for Microsoft's MSN online service, notes that Hotmail serves up ads to its users too, based on their age, sex, language and nationality -- all information that Microsoft requests from Hotmail users.

''We try to do advertising based on demographic information," Grothaus said. ''You're a younger person, maybe you'll get information on a hip new car."

For $60 a year, Hotmail will sell you up to 100 megabytes of mail storage, room enough for many months of messages. Even deleted files will be preserved on backup tapes for up to 37 days. And of course, the cops can always get a warrant or, after 180 days, a subpoena.

Internet security consultant Richard Smith of Braintree points to other Web-based services crammed with private data. Smith makes his travel arrangements through the Expedia website partly because it remembers all of his previous travel data.

''It saves like the last year's worth of trips," Smith said.

Then there's book shopping at, which remembers customers' favorite authors and literary genres.

Even if you create an anonymous e-mail address and send messages from a public library or cyber cafe, the messages will carry a numerical address that can be linked back to the computer that originated it.

''If you're going to commit a crime on the Internet through e-mail, you're going to go to jail," said Smith. ''It's very, very hard to hide your traces."

Schwartz said that Gmail isn't really the issue.

''Gmail just highlights the problem," he said. ''As storage gets cheaper and cheaper, services were bound to offer to store more and more data for you."

And when people get broadband connections, data stored half a world away is just as accessible as the data on their desktops. Besides, if it's on the Internet, you can get your information at any computer terminal on earth.

To Google's Sergey Brin, the benefits of such a centralized data storehouse seem obvious. Now, thanks to the Gmail furor, so do the drawbacks.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at 

Globe Archives
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months