Gmail is Watching You

I’ve known for a long time they were monitoring my emails.

It started a few years back when my sister and I were exchanging updates on our ongoing projects. She sent me a picture of a blanket she knitted for her grandson.

Fingers typing on keyboardThere, on the side of the screen next to her note, was an ad for a yarn company.

I dismissed it, thinking it was coincidence. After all, when I signed up for Gmail, it’s possible I filled out an interest survey. I didn’t remember filling out a survey, but hey. It’s possible. No need to get paranoid over it.

Then my sister emailed with the idea of visiting a local winery together. Next to her note were two ads for wine. One of them was for the winery.

Either my sister was a marketing genius, or someone at Google was reading our emails. Why they wanted to read the emails of two middle-aged sisters in Arizona, I’ve no idea.

Maybe they thought we were terrorists?

I’d be lying if I said this didn’t bother me. Any time I see ads deliberately tailored to me, it’s a bit unnerving. But after a while, as these things go, I became desensitized.

So the book I just looked at on Amazon is now displayed on my email page. And Twitter. And Facebook. Big whoop. *scrollsforcatvideos*

Until yesterday, that is.

Husband is traveling, so he sent me an email. I read it on my tablet, as I am wont to do.

It was a lovely email. Unusually long, for him, filled with details of his trip and how much he really, really, really misses me. *blush*

I get to the end and there are three blue boxes. Each of the boxes contained a response, such as “I miss you too” and “Glad you arrived safely.”

I’d never seen them before, and they seemed just a little too close to appropriate responses. There was only one possible answer.

Someone was reading my emails!

What’s more, this interloper, this Covert Gmail Spy, obviously didn’t trust my ability to write an effective response! Apparently, he thought I was stymied.

Well, I showed him! I wrote a heartfelt reply. Full of angst and pathos and a review of the book I just finished — Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders.

Great read, by the way. You should check it out.

Where was I? Oh yeah. I showed Covert Gmail Spy a thing or two! You think you can tell me how to email? Ha! We don’t need your responses!

We don’t need your stinkin’ boxes!

Then this morning, I got another email from Husband. Again, there were three boxes.

This time I thought to take a screen shot:

Smart Response

So I did some research.

It’s called Smart Reply for Gmail. It’s an app that’s been around since 2015, but was automatic in the most recent Gmail update for iOS and Android. So maybe you have it too?

According to what I read, Google’s “machine intelligence” (aka, Covert Gmail Spy) previews your email and picks three likely responses. You can either select the responses and send them immediately from the spy app, or use them as a start off for a customized message.

The app is billed as a Time-Saver, and not, as I call it, a Spy-Device.

There are some out there who will try to tell you this is a good thing.

Smart Reply is all about saving you time and letting you dispatch boring email replies without too much effort.
Even better, it learns over time. So if Google notices you use a lot of exclamation points in your replies, you can expect to see that mirrored in the Smart Replies offered up. If you consistently don’t choose one of the options, Google will come up with some better ones for you.

Interesting. If I continue to not choose the boxes, Google will come up with better ones.


I’m intrigued. There may be a way to beat Covert Gmail Spy at his own game.

What if we step up the quality of our emails? Bring them to a whole other level? Turn them into groundbreaking essays, riveting prose, heart-wrenching poetry…

Oh my gosh, people! Imagine the trembling hands of Covert Gmail Spy as he sets out to find an appropriate, three to five word response to our tomes!

The quest is before us! Rise up all you who denounce email surveillance! Shake off your vapid responses and stock replies. Now is the time to pontificate, belabor, and rehash every story you ever wanted to tell, with the best vocabulary you can muster!

Let it now be said: This shall be called the Golden Age of Email.

Take that, Covert Gmail Spy! 🕵

36 thoughts on “Gmail is Watching You

  1. I haven’t noticed this happening with my gmail, either. I’m in there all the time, every day, so it’s not like some algorithm took a look at my output and thought, “meh, he never does anything, skip him”. Or perhaps the bot was mortified by my contents, quickly calculated that any involvement with my musings could result in some form of “guilt by association” prosecution, and then the bot hightailed it out of there, flagging my account for future inconsideration. Yep, that’s probably it… 😉

      1. Yes, they seem to target the phone first. Fascinating.
        Brings to mind a Dr. Who episode where the aliens took control of people through devices people wore, similar to Fitbits.
        Hmm. The mystery deepens. As does our paranoia.

    1. So far the spy device has only infiltrated my phone and tablet. My desktop appears secure – for the time being. Not sure what device you’re using, but my suggestion is that you keep using it. Maybe wear a tinfoil hat as well, just to be safe.

  2. are you sure it was your husband sending the emails and not just a bunch of “blue boxes” put up by google based on his google searches, emails and location and him clicking, “That’s a good one.”???
    This week I had to take a flight out of town and had the plane reservation sent to my gmail account. Next time I opened my iPhone there was a question from my calendar asking if I wanted to add the flight time to my schedule.

    Next time I need to travel, I am just sending google and my iPhone. They can send me a nice email about my trip and I can stay home in my workshop.

    1. Ah, I see you found a positive angle to this, as I was sure you would. If I thought Covert Gmail Spy was open to taking over less enjoyable tasks in my life, I would be willing to negotiate a truce. Say, two hours of pulling weeds for one day of email surveillance?
      I’ll give it some thought. Once again, thank you for being the voice of reason in a time of crisis.
      As for Husband sending me blue boxes, I’ve had worse gifts. At least they’re tidy.

  3. Facebook is invasive too. Between the ads, and the notes that remind me to wish someone a Happy Birthday, or celebrate the day they became my Facebook friend, etc, etc – I wish Facebook would get a life of it’s own, and leave me to mine.

    1. Yes! And if it’s been a while since you’ve visited Facebook, you can almost smell the desperation, can’t you?
      True fact: the less you go on Facebook, the more notifications they send you. All in an effort to get you back.
      They’re like the needy boyfriend you can’t shake. It’s pathetic.

  4. I’ve just started getting these check the box replies. They are so much about helping that they want to make my life easier. Have they ever thought that I don’t want my life made any easier? Big brother is now in our Gmail replies.

    Which reminds me, I needed to buy a lawn mower and went online, big mistake, I never realized how much lawn paraphernalia there is and they want me to buy it all.

    1. I think that’s what bothers me most of all – when something I’ve searched for starts showing up in other places, even in ads on blogs. Sometimes it feels like we’re living in a real life sci-fi film, doesn’t it? Man, sure hope it has a pleasant ending!

  5. Funny albeit scary post. I’m totally with you on the notion of creating my very own email replies. Human creativity shall trump smarty pants AI!

  6. What do you think you’re doing resisting technology? Is CJ Hartwell the secret identity of John Connor? Is Arnold Schwagzenegger lurking in your neighbourhood? Is there a T-1000 in your future? So many questions and now i can’t even ask Google.

  7. I’m an unapologetic user of an ad blocker, so I don’t see the ads anymore. But content-sniffing by Google seems way intrusive to me. I know it’s just an algorithm recognizing words, but even so. “Remember, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide.” 😉

    1. True, that.
      Though I just read an article from an author who was wondering how many government watch lists she landed on after writing a book on hacking – and all the Google searches she did for research.
      Something to think about before you look up what your character needs to build a bomb. Might wind up with a SWAT team at your door. 😉

  8. Right up there on my peeve list – dislike it that they want the right to poke into everything. Why even bother having a conversation if you are going to let a bot answer for you!

  9. Eeeew, this is creepy. My defense against electronic intrusion has always been the utter ordinariness and boringness of my existence. What retailer or influencer of opinions cares about me? My other defense is my ability to completely ignore pop-up ads. I have no idea what they’re trying to sell me. Also, I’m the only person in North America who’s chosen not to have a smart phone. While my citadel could crumble at any time, I confess to a tiny bit of smugness.

    1. Nope, got ya there, Kathy. My sister is a holdout on the smart phone as well. And one of the facilities guys for the district office has a flip phone. So there’s three of you. Which is enough to start a club, if you wanted. 🙂

  10. I couldn’t claim to be catching up without backtracking your blog – so glad I did. I missed seeing you these past weeks, Christi! So, one of the advantages of living with dinosaurs (GS3 cell, 4 year-old notepad, my steadfast 12-year-old laptop with a whopping 6.12 mps down 3.72 up internet speed) and actually talking to people in live, real time phone conversations is I don’t interest many of the sort you mention. Gmail yawns loudly when I log on and quickly meanders off…

  11. Thanks for the like on Polloplayer. I’m not sure it is so much that they are reading emails (although not out of the realm of possibility, but that’s pretty labor intensive!) as it is the predictive ad software that tracks your web searches and then inserts the ads for those on your email and every other site you visit. All kind of Minority Report-ish, if you saw that film.

  12. Very humor laden, in a not-at-all-paranoid way! I hope the heirloom tomatoes don’t dye the whites pink in your next cyber wash. (Let’s see what pops up in your browser for that!)

    1. Did you see the TED talk about the research done based on Google search terms? The idea was, people often lie on surveys, but their search histories tell the real story.
      This has nothing to do with your comment, it just popped in my head when I thought of googling “heirloom tomato cyber wash”.
      Those poor researchers.

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