Internet security company High-Tech Bridge conducted a test to find out if Internet companies are spying on your private messages and their results seem to indicate that they are.
They sent private messages via services like Google, Facebook and Twitter that included a special internet address, created just for the test. Then they sat back and waited to see if those companies clicked on that link.
They tested 50 social media and free e-mail companies and six of the companies opened the link in the private message. Ilia Kolochenko from High-Tech Bridge said, “We found they were clicking on links that should be known only to sender and recipient. If the links are being opened, we cannot be sure that the content of the messages are not also being read.”
By reading your e-mails, the companies would learn about your hobbies, future plans and shopping habits and be able sell that information to advertisers. Google, Facebook, Twitter and Formspring were all caught clicking on the links. The other two companies were URL shortening services: bit.ly and gool.gl.
High-Tech Bridge also added, “Taking into consideration that some of the services may have legitimate robots (e.g. to verify and block spam links) crawling every user-transmitted link automatically, we also created a robots.txt file on our web server that restricted bots accessing the server and its content. Only Twitter respected this restriction, all other social networks simply ignored it, accessing the secret URL.”
Among the services that didn’t access the link are:
- AOL Mail
- Gmail (though the link was followed in a Google+ message)
- Yahoo Mail
It’s a good reminder that why social networks and e-mail services may say they are “free,” you do end up paying with your information, which is a valuable commodity to advertisers.
I had an interesting experience recently along these lines. I sent a private message to my husband regarding a controversy over a NASCAR race. If you don’t follow racing, it’s not going to make much sense to you, but it read: “Turns out Clint Bowyer was treated for poison oak in the infield care center before the race.” An hour or two later, guess what pops up as an ad in my e-mail? Remedies for poison ivy and poison oak. Something I’ve never written an e-mail about or searched for on the Internet. After learning about that study, it gave me a lot to think about.