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As posted on What’s the best email service that doesn’t scan emails for ad-targeting?

What’s the best free email service provider that does not scan or use the data in your emails for advertising? Jim

Free email services are usually paid for by showing you advertisements. Some email services scan your emails in order to show you personalised or targeted ads. You could argue that that’s a benefit, because you’ll see ads in which you might have some interest. You could also argue that your emails are private, so it’s an invasion of privacy. Either way, it’s different from scanning your emails to stop viruses and phishing attempts, which nobody wants to stop.

There are several options, but the problem is bigger than you may think, and likely to get worse.

Gmail and AI

When Google launched Gmail in 2004, it did indeed scan your emails for advertising purposes. You could only avoid it by using a paid-for version of the service. That changed last summer, when Google announced that it would no longer scan emails to tailor adverts.

That didn’t mean you would get adverts picked at random. As Alex Hern explained here, “the adverts will now be targeted in the same way as other Google services, based on information gleaned from other activity on users’ profiles, such as their searches, browsing activity, and even physical locations”.

Google has the world’s largest known tracking system, thanks partly to Google Analytics – which is used on far more websites than any Facebook tracker – and its DoubleClick advertising business. Add Google Search and it already knows so much about you that scanning your emails may well be superfluous. The good news is that you can delete a lot of it, with the help of a Guardian article by Dylan Curran: Here is all the data Facebook and Google have on you.

The problem is that Google has lots of other reasons to read your email, and you may find some of them useful. For example, Google might tell you about traffic jams or flight delays, put appointments in your calendar, or offer to write quick email replies for you. These features involve AI software reading your emails, tracking your website visits, and your location. In the future, it may include information from home speakers (Google Home etc), household gadgets (Nest etc), fitness bands, smartwatches, cars (Waymo) and other connected devices.

As AI gets smarter, there will be more and more opportunities for companies to track you, profile you, and help you.

In other words, scanning emails to tailor advertising is a relatively minor issue in the great scheme of things. The larger problem is that the whole web economy is based on surveillance, and there’s very little you can actually do about it. Even if you try to stay anonymous and block cookies, you might be identified by techniques such as device profiling, fingerprinting, and AI systems that can recognise your typing.

Change email service

Neither of the two largest email services – Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Outlook.com – scans your emails for advertising purposes. If you want to avoid those, Zoho Mail is a good alternative. It’s primarily aimed at business users, and includes an online office suite and other features. It offers a free service with 5GB of mail storage space, so you can try it. You may find it’s worth paying €24 per year for 30GB of storage and other features such as domain aliases and Microsoft Active Sync support.

ProtonMail, which is based in Switzerland, is one of the most privacy-conscious email services, and offers encrypted and self-destructing emails. However, it only provides 500MB of storage to non-paying users. ProtonMail Plus costs €48 per year for 5GB of storage, while ProtonMail Visionary costs €288 per year for 20GB. You’d be more likely to use this as a supplementary service than for all your emails.

FastMail is a popular alternative, because it offers good support with no ads and no tracking, but it’s not free. The Basic service with 2GB of storage costs $30 per year, while 25GB costs $50 and 100GB costs $90 per year. There’s a 30-day free trial so you can test it first, and a migration guide to help you switch from another supplier.

Use an email client

Most people now access their email service via a web browser. The pre-web alternative was to use an email client program to download new emails to your PC. If you use an email client then you won’t see any targeted adverts even if your emails are scanned.

In the old days, email programs used POP3, the Post Office Protocol. The software downloaded your emails then deleted them from the mail server. This has mostly been replaced by IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol), which downloads emails and leaves them on the server, unless you delete them deliberately. This means you can download the same emails to several PCs, or read them online with a different smartphone, tablet or PC, etc.

Email programs have fallen on relatively hard times, and Microsoft has discontinued the Windows Live Mail program that was popular with Ask Jack readers, (although it still works). This is partly because devices may already include a mail app, and the Mail and Calendar app in Windows 10 is actually pretty good for most users. It supports multiple accounts, not just Outlook.com, and there are companion Outlook apps for Android and Apple smartphones.

Alternatives include Mozilla’s free and open source Thunderbird, which runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux, and Windows programs such as Mailbird and eM Client. Mailbird Lite is free but you can get Mailbird Pro for $39 (or $19.50 at the time of writing). eM Client is free for non-commercial use but there’s a Pro version for £35.94.

Business users tend to use Microsoft Outlook, which is one of the main Office programs. Outlook is not included in the Home and Student edition, but you could pick up a cheap version of Office 2016 Professional. Alternatively, you could subscribe to Office 365 Personal (£/$59.99 per year for one user), or Office 365 Home (£/$79.99 per year for five users), and download it. Each Office 365 user gets 1TB of storage, which makes it economical.

Other controls

The online advertising industry has a self-regulatory body called the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), which offers advice to consumers. There’s also the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a non-profit organisation that describes itself as “the leading self-regulatory association dedicated to responsible data collection and its use for digital advertising”.

The NAI has an “opt out” page, which sets an opt-out cookie that will be respected by NAI members. You will still see ads, but most will not be targeted ads. It offered me the chance to opt out of targeted ads from 90 members, including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. You have to run it in every browser you use.

You can also install the EFF’s Privacy Badger and/or the open source Ghostery browser add-on. Privacy Badger tries to enforce Do Not Track if you have that turned on in your browser.

Another idea is to use Firefox’s first-party isolation (FPI) feature, which Mozilla has adopted from the Tor browser. To turn it on, paste the following into the address bar and set the top preference to True:

about:config?filter=privacy.firstparty.isolate

This may create log-in problems so it’s better to use an extension instead.

A more practical idea, currently, is to use a Firefox container to isolate a particular site. Mozilla offers a Facebook Container extension, which makes it easy. The full Multi-Account Containers extension lets you keep any site – or group of sites – separate. It was designed to let you, for example, log into two or more different accounts on one service in the same browser at the same time. However, you could use a container to isolate Gmail or any other service.

Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com

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