Immersion’s Metadata, the Internet Police, and Gmail’s (Lack of) Privacy: What Exactly Is Private Anymore?


Internet PoliceRemember when freedom and anonymity online meant no one was sure what rules — if any — applied to Internet use? And no one knew about Google yet and how your future emails would eventually be monitored and your data sold to the highest bidder? Email was private, right?

In a recent NPR interview, technology writer Nate Anderson discussed his new book, The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed, which explores those early days of the Internet. Anderson’s research investigates how early scam artists and spammers drew the attention of law enforcement — and how several technology pioneers tried to create an online utopia free from government intervention. Here is one passage from the book’s excerpt:

“Customers who wanted total Internet freedom could use HavenCo servers to run their online gaming sites or pro-Tibet blogs with impunity, but they could reside and play in places where people actually wanted to live. Thanks to the Internet’s amazing ability to publish globally, it had become a simple matter to stick servers in one country with a favorable set of laws, but use them to reach the wealthy residents of countries whose governments were less excited about whatever was on offer. For HavenCo to succeed, its founders needed somewhere with fewer restrictions, but they didn’t want mere anarchy. The ideal location would have just enough order to avoid arbitrary lawmaking and to enforce private contracts. It also needed protection from unhappy governments who might simply show up in force and shut down the scheme. What HavenCo wanted, in other words, was a minimalist sovereign state.”

Pretty interesting, right? What we’ve all learned since the Internet’s early days is that surveillance is a two-way street, and not only are the authorities actively “policing” the Internet, so too are companies that want your online data. As the writer of this interesting post in The Guardian says:

“[I] always assumed there must be some kind of machine scanning my inbox. How else could I have remained free from penis enlargement advertisements for so long? Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, has said before: ‘Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.’ I would extend this assertion to most of the Internet (although, of course, there are corners of this world wide web where the creepy line is but a minuscule speck in the rearview mirror).”

As Private WiFi’s CEO Kent Lawson explained last week in his Ask the Expert article, if a corporation like Google has this data, it’s eventually going to be made available to governments, if it hasn’t already. It wouldn’t be that hard, either, because Google does not encrypt any of the information it stores, so locating any particular information about any Google user would be simple. As he wrote in his article:

“While Google says that the data they collect on you is not connected to your name, and is thus quasi-anonymous, it’s becoming easier and easier for online researchers to use that supposedly ‘anonymous’ data to find the actual person behind it. From there, it’s not hard to find out your Social Security number and everything about you.”

If you don’t believe us, just check out Immersion and the shocking truth behind metadata. As the founder explains, the Immersion platform presents users with a number of different perspectives by leveraging on the fact that the web, and emails, are now an important part of our past. Put another way, as it’s been almost two decades since most of us started using email with regular frequency, “this means that the web is no longer just a technology of the present, but also, a record of our past.”


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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.