Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Many of the free email services run ads along side your email that are targeted to the content of the message. My opinion? Nothing to worry about.

I noticed the banner ads on Yahoo Mail reflect the subjects of my mail. To test this, I created a few fake messages to myself with subjects having topics of no interest to me like dog food, new car, landscaping, new shoes, etc. and noticed the ad banners change to reflect them. I see ads for exactly my mail subjects. Is Yahoo reading my mail?

Not to get pedantic on you, but it really depends on what exactly you mean by "reading".

Of course Yahoo "reads" your mail. The question is really, how much, and to what end?

It's not limited to Yahoo. In fact, my favorite example is when checking my spam folder in Gmail, the ad across the top is often for some kind of cooking recipe involving Spam, the meat product.

Absolutely, if you're seeing targeted ads on your email display, then the service, be it Yahoo or Gmail or whomever, has looked at your email, analyzed its contents, picked out certain keywords and then matched it up against their inventory of available advertising.

"... they do exactly the same thing to filter out spam."

Is that "reading" your email?

Well, yes and no.

Obviously, they had to analyze your message's contents to determine what it's about at that high level.

But then, they do exactly the same thing to filter out spam. Most common spam fighting techniques involve analyzing the body of email to determine its characteristics and intent, and make some kind of determination whether or not the email is spam.

So, yeah, that's "reading" your email too, in a sense.

Now, is someone - some person - reading your email to spy on you or see what you're saying or otherwise keep track of you?

No.

OK, maybe yes for some extremely small percentage of you under government surveillance, I suppose, but for the vast majority of people reading this the answer is a resounding NO.

As I've said multiple times here, you, as an individual, just aren't that interesting.

Sorry if that's a strike against your ego.

What if you're still concerned?

Opt out.

Depending on your level of paranoia, that could mean simply changing to a less intrusive email service, moving to some kind of encrypted email, or it could mean not using email at all. Email, by its very nature, is actually woefully insecure, and that's one reason that these techniques for spam fighting and ad serving work at all.

It's also one reason that spam exists.

But for most people, targeted ads are simply a sign of the times, and nothing more.

Article C3859 - September 2, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Mark J
September 2, 2009 1:46 PM

As Phil Zimmerman, creator of PGP (encryption tor the masses), said and I paraphrase: Email is like a postcard anybody can read it. Put your mail in an envelope, ie encrypt it.

Encryption has its downside. Law enforcement people believe only criminals need to hide what their doing, so it may draw more unwanted attention therefore making you more interesting.

Tarek aman banna
September 3, 2009 1:34 AM

I belive that yahoo never read my email at a sense.because they delivery any type of message if its would be a message of Al kaiya or Osama bin laden or any rich or high message

Chris
September 3, 2009 10:54 AM

A computer reading your email is not the same as a human being. This practice has been used for YEARS to filter out spam. Now, in conjunction to spam filtering, it is used to scan for relative ads (something you might be interested in, instead of total junk).

Most people think their email is never seen by anyone but the one person who has access to your inbox (you), but you are 100% incorrect. Your email is not sent from the sender directly to your computer. It is sent to a server or through a series of servers that belong to your email provider where it is stored until you access it.

It is STORED --- I believe if it is sitting there anyway, on a machine, doing nothing, there should be no treat having that same machine scan your email for keyword/phrases to better help your email experience. It is sitting on a machine anyway, in which whos eyes are not being seen through. To it, your email is simply a series of 1's and 0's (just as long as it's programming doesnt surpass that and begins logging/flagging nonspammer email addresses).

When/if gmail begins targeted/scanning of email for governmental purposes or to filter out specific people (where then your rights are being violated), would I be worried.

As much as I hate conspiracies and as many of those movies as seen in theaters and TV, it could be very possible for this kind of partnership (between search engines and email services such as google and yahoo with the government), but I believe (call me stupid) that politics and our mere rights as Americans would stop any such actions way before they start.

Bill
September 8, 2009 8:41 AM

PGP is not similar to putting a letter into an envelope, then it would be about as easy to read as a normal email.

Unless someone is into things like corporate secrets, drug deals or murder for hire, it is a lot of overkill.
More like a courier with a briefcase handcuffed to their wrists, with the combination only known to the receiver, and dye packs that are triggered if the briefcase is opened by anyone else.

If any "friend" starts sending me any normal email with PGP encription, it will be headed to the trash can immediately.
I don't need the nonsense.

Menagerie
September 8, 2009 8:52 AM

Why not just turn the banners off? Several free software packages do this?

That may stop the ads from appearing, but it doesn't neccessarily address the question: it probably doesn't stop your email from being "read".
Leo
09-Sep-2009

Ming
September 8, 2009 9:00 AM


"Law enforcement people believe only criminals need to hide what their doing, so it may draw more unwanted attention therefore making you more interesting".

An interesting observation. When was the last time to you had access to police, FBI, and CIA communications?

John MuwwEy
September 8, 2009 9:26 PM

I've done something, without knowing the result, that unexpectedly proved to be a SPAM "avoider"

I've given myself an email address name with more than 2 of the same letters:
e.g.: jjjjohnnn@wherever.com

IT REALLLLY WORKS

sirpaul1
September 9, 2009 12:40 AM

Just like Vegas! What goes into the internet, stays in the internet.

mike
September 13, 2012 8:02 PM

"As I've said multiple times here, you, as an individual, just aren't that interesting."

You can say it as many times as you like but your wrong. Every detail about me or you, including personal information, is very interesting for them. It can be used for everything, marketing, politics etc.

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