Commentary: Google’s New Policy on Email Scanning

Friday’s post on Google’s own blog is causing a pretty significant stir in my circles right now.  Largely, I think it’s because no one really realized that their emails were being read by The Googler. For me, it’s something else… it’s speculation on why this is happening.  What’s coming?  WHAT IS THE GOOGLE HIDING?!?

I know a lot of you have waited a long time for Google to eventually reveal that it was actually behind the last year’s hyjinx all along and is now plotting world domination.  I know you believe this is going to happen, or at least that Amazon is going to undermine all retail, ever.  As with most things in life, it’s none as sinister as you reckon.  The truth is always somewhere between the two extremes in any argument, you just have to find it.

Back to Google’s Email Scanning

Because Google directly impacts what we do, it’s important that we stay on top of what it’s up to — but it’s equally important that we understand what we’re reading.  This is akin to how we use statistics or study data or anything like that, it’s one thing to read it and another to actually understand it.  The understanding is the thing, is my point.

Google has stated that it has never scanned its G Suite emails, only mining free email accounts for information.  When many people read this, the first thing they do is cry, because they’ve emailed some pretty personal/sexy/intimate thoughts using the service.  The thing those folks need to realize is that what Google IS STILL DOING (many headlines made it read like it was stopping Friday, but it’s not stopping until October — that’s another rant for another day) is simply scanning for keywords it can use to feed you ads.  I mean, this is nothing.  It’s a non-thing.

What IS interesting is that they’re stopping.  At least, to me.  Google has spent many years developing some pretty crazy advanced computer systems that can not only make reasonable assumptions and predictions, but learn from data that they’re fed.  Their machine learning is on the cutting edge of everything, Google’s machines are smarter than people in many respects, which is both exciting and frightening.

This not-headline is what the news should be, in my opinion.  If they’re not scanning emails any longer to feed us personalized advertisements, how are they going to do it?  Ad personalization isn’t going anywhere, so what we should be asking is “what’s next?” for Google advertising.

More Speculations on the Google Machine Future

Because Google is predicted to make $72.69 billion this year in ad revenues, I have a hard time believing that it would make a move that would damage that income stream.  More likely, one of two things is happening right now: Google has realized that scanning emails is a fruitless place to hunt up information that enables accurate predictions or (and this is what I think) it has found a much better way to sort this.

After all, keyword-based predictive algorithms are incredibly resource intensive, so if I were a Google, I’d be looking for a faster, easier way to achieve the same level of accuracy.  And hey, it turns out the minds at Google have actually thought a lot about this stuff, as evidenced by papers like “Ad Click Prediction: A View from the Trenches,” published in 2013 and the on-going craziness happening at the Research at Google site.

The thing, the real thing here in this story, I think — I believe with all my brainy bits — is that we’re entering a new stage in the maturation of artificial intelligence and machine learning.  Facebook, Amazon and other internet giants will certainly wonder what Google has built instead of focusing on the minutiae of unscanned email.  Although Google is a not terribly awful overlord, it’s still in it for the money.  Dropping the email scanning is not one of those things that it did just to make people happy.  It simply found a better way to keep you checking your email so you’ll see ads that might convince you to buy a thing.

Mark my words — MARK THEM! — the real story isn’t what Google posted, it’s what it held back.  There’s more to this story, and I have a funny feeling it’s about to get pretty fucking awesome up in here.  Even as my once-noble profession, journalism, is threatened by machine learning, I’m thrilled as fuck to welcome our smart machine conquerors.

Do you think they’d like a muffin basket?