Many consumers have complained about Google's practice of "reading" emails to select appropriate advertisements and a new plug-in may make those complaints more intense.
The new Gmail plug-in called Streak informs Gmail users exactly when emails they sent were opened — and where the recipients were when they opened them. Meanwhile, the lucky recipients of these Gmail emails aren't informed of how much personal information they're broadcasting to the email sender.
Streak did not immediately respond to ConsumerAffairs' request for comment. But in fairness, it should be noted that Streak bills itself as a business app -- saying it provides "CRM (customer relationship management) in your inbox." As the Streak site puts it:
You already live in your inbox; shouldn't your CRM?
Streak lets you keep track of all your deals right from your inbox. We let you group emails from the same customer together into one view and push that customer through your pipeline. When a new email comes in, you'll have all the context you need.
That's fine but the Streak application would also be fantastically useful for stalkers or stalker wannabes — if you don't know where your ex is now living, sending her a Gmail message and waiting to see where she opened it is much easier and cheaper than, say, hiring a private detective or getting a job with the NSA.
When "On The Media" blogger PJ Vogt tested the Streak application, here's what he found:
I sent Alex, my colleague, an email, and Streak was able to get me within about five minutes of our workplace.
It's not hard to imagine a situation where this could be badly abused. People who've been stalked, threatened, or harassed, for instance, should be able to open an email without unwittingly giving away their location.
So what can you do if you don't want to be tracked? Well, you can start by not allowing images to autoload in your email client. Also, in my (very rudimentary) tests I found that Gmail, for whatever reason, offered better protection than my office's Exchange email client. (With Gmail, I only found out when Alex had opened up my email. It was the Exchange client that gave away his neighborhood.)
Of course, the fact that Gmail seems to offer its own account-holders some protection against this is scant comfort to people who do not have Gmail accounts, yet can now be effortlessly be stalked by anyone who does.
Google's unofficial corporate motto is “Don't be evil.” This is excellent advice, though maybe they should take it a step further – “Don't help others be evil, either.” Abolishing stalker apps would be a good start.