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Google's snooping Gmail the target of Microsoft's latest 'Scroogle' attack

Just a few months after launching a direct attack against Google Search, Microsoft is back on the warpath with another installment of its "Scroogled" campaign, this time taking aim at Gmail.

The new campaign comes with a full website and a series of videos that criticise how Gmail handles email data. The first video, for example, takes aim at the targeted ads that surface on Gmail based on the conversations you're having in your emails. At the end, it shows a clip of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt delivering his now infamous comment about the company's policy of going right up to the "creepy line" of privacy, but not crossing it. The other video assumes a more lighthearted, matter-of-fact approach, showing an office worker explaining to a colleague how Gmail's email scanning works to serve targeted advertisements.

If visitors to the Scroogled site dig deeper, they'll also find links to news stories about Google and the issue of privacy, as well as infographics outlining the differences between Gmail and Microsoft's email service.

This might seem hypocritical. On Microsoft's privacy site, for example, the company says that its services "may include the display of personalized content and advertising."

On the Scroogled site, however, Microsoft says it only scans email for spam and security-related purposes.

"Just like the postal service sorts and scans mail and packages for dangerous explosives and biohazards, scans your mail to help prevent spam, gray mail, phishing scams, viruses, malware," the Redmond-based firm said. "Microsoft and its email services... do not use the content of customers' private emails, communications, or documents to target advertising."

The Scroogled site also highlights a survey conducted by the Mozaic Group, which found that 71 per cent of Gmail users are unaware that the words in their emails are used to serve targeted advertisements. The issue, of course, is nothing new. It first made headlines in 2004, when a US state senator tried unsuccessfully to block Gmail because of privacy concerns related to email scanning.

On Google's site, the search giant said that it too "scans the text of Gmail messages in order to filter spam and detect viruses, just as all major webmail services do. Google also uses this scanning technology to deliver targeted text ads and other related information. This is completely automated and involves no humans."

Google acknowledged that the email scanning might be "unsettling at first," but said that most users become comfortable with it the more they use Gmail.

"However some people, many of whom have not used Gmail, have reacted by condemning all automatic scanning of email content, on the grounds that it amounts to a violation of privacy. We think this criticism is misplaced," Google said. "When email messages are fully protected from unwanted disclosure, the automatic scanning of email does not amount to a violation of privacy."