How your private emails can spread all over the world Featured

How your private emails can spread all over the world

SNAP. You press the shutter icon on your phone and capture a photo of your baby daughter. With a couple of swipes, you attach it to an email in your Gmail app and fire it off to your mother-in-law.

As personal data goes, it doesn’t get much more innocuous. But the truth is that spraying around any private information is risky. You might think that’s overblown. As long as you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.

It’s not that simple. Just look at this summer’s hack that exposed the data from Ashley Madison, a site catering for people looking for an affair, and imagine if the same happened with all your emails stored by Google, or your photos on Facebook. Even if you’ve done nothing illegal or immoral, faced with a database of every photograph and comment you’ve ever shared privately, friendships and business deals could dissolve the world over.

And there are plenty of vulnerabilities. The material displayed on the web is stored, often in central server farms. Whenever you upload text or pictures, they are ferried to these farms by cables. Although there are safeguards, data can in theory be hacked, stolen or altered at many points along the way.

Let’s return to that photo, and imagine that once your mother-in-law receives your email, she immediately uploads the baby pic to Facebook. The likelihood is that even such an everyday occurrence will send information pinging on unexpected routes around the world, often leading it to be stored in places with unfamiliar privacy laws (see “Around the world in 80 microseconds“).


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