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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Evidence that Facebook can read the contents of your private emails

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Users of Facebook will be well aware that Facebook somehow 'knows' the contents of your web browsing history and serves up adverts accordingly. If you've ever had that peculiar experience of researching an exotic summer holiday to the Caribbean (I dream) and then discovered your Facebook timeline full of promotions about pristine beaches and exotic hotels you'll know what I'm talking about. To be fair this isn't necessarily Facebook snooping on your searches directly, but remarketing companies passing your data onto Facebook. Still, it's unsettling.

But what if Facebook could read the contents of your private emails and serve content that responds to those? That would be downright intrusive, right?

Yesterday I received an email - to my Gmail account, which I opened in Outlook 2016 - from a friend who has just returned from a cycling holiday in the Netherlands. He reported on various "amazing child carrying bicycle options in Netherlands" such as "a giant wooden box on the front of a bike where you just pile up the kids / shopping / dog." Imagine my surprise when later that evening I logged onto my Android Facebook app and saw the following in my timeline as a recommended video:

Uncanny, huh? I can assure you that the number of times I have searched for Dutch bicycle baskets and cycling behaviour is pretty minimal. Zero in fact. There's nothing related in my browsing history. And as I don't ever post to Facebook, just read it passively, I haven't added any photos or other content that might relate to this. Neither have I watched videos like this before. The only 'content' on my devices that could inspire Facebook to serve up this as a video I may like is that single, private email.

While Facebook requests extensive and invasive permissions when installing the Android app, none of these should allow it to read the contents of private emails. We know Google reads the contents of emails for its own advertising purposes. But Facebook and Google are two separate entities, and there's no way Facebook should be able to access emails stored on the latter's servers.

If it can have access, that is deeply concerning. In this case, the content is very innocuous, but it's easy to imagine other examples that would be less so. For instance, imagine an email from a daughter to her mother announcing her pregnancy, which she wants to keep private for now, only to find her Facebook feed populated with adverts for pink fluffy bunnies and Pampers.

So does Facebook 'know' about the contents of private email? If so how? Any thoughts welcome.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:40 am


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