Woe to the Gmail.

Google's free email service, Gmail, revolutionised web-based email services trouncing both Hotmail and Yahoo! from their respective thrones when it was launched on April 1, 2004. It offered a mammoth one gigabyte of free space, with both POP3 and IMAP capabilities, and was an invite-only beta service at the time.

Fast forward four years, the free space is up to 6GBs, the service is free and open for all, the email service is linked to an online office application suite complete with a calendar and has a built-in chat service. With so many features, it is no wonder that Gmail has become a favourite among users worldwide. But being the best has a price: once Gmail achieved the status of an award winning multi-million user free email service, it became the target to the malicious hackers of the world.

People were blocked out of their own accounts, the data that they had stored online compromised — not to mention valuable information such as credit card details. Also, since Gmail was linked to other services such as Orkut, the vastness of the damage caused by such attacks can only be imagined.

Gmail uses a well-known web programming techniques called Ajax. These techniques use JavaScript to make function calls. At the same time, JavaScript transmits data such as emails and contacts in plaintext as data in the page source code. Hackers can then eavesdrop on this and become privy to personal and private information. But besides hackers, Google scans each and every email before it is open for the receiver. Users and critics alike have expressed concern over the fact that someone — even a computer — was reading and or scanning each mail that arrives. It puts the entire issue of e-privacy into question.

Consider this fact: each and every search query made into Google is saved. If you are logged into Gmail and searching on Google at the same time, then Google saves your search queries in particular, meaning that you build up a menagerie of your past searches and its results.

Not only that, Google combines the search queries with the information contained in the user’s email. No one knows why such information is gathered and Google states it is following industry-wide practices. One of the possible purposes derived by the critics is that such information is used by law enforcement agencies around the world. If that is not all, deleted information (such as mails) may take up to 60 days before they are removed from Google’s backup systems. Though Google has issued statements that it is actively restructuring its systems to remove deleted data faster, users are not that impressed.

With so much unsure information surrounding Gmail’s services, one can imagine it would be a pretty easy prey for hackers to target users and their Gmail accounts. But, the fact remains that even with all its shortcomings, there are plenty of users who are happy with its service.

Qasim Makkani, Associate Creative Director at an advertising agency, is an avid user of Gmail. His reasons for using Gmail are obvious, “It had unbelievable storage capacity, very convenient to use (very user-friendly), you can send and receive heavy attachments, and it's a darn cool brand,” he gushes about the services and offers suggestions on improving them.

But even Makkani has had bad experiences with the service when his account was hacked. "I tried logging in one day and my password didn't work. Someone had hacked my Gmail and used it to hack my Skype as well. This hacker was calling my Skype contacts and talking to my Gmail contacts, trying to get financial information out of them." Like many users, he tried contacting Gmail but got little to no response from them, besides automated replies.

Kiran Farooque, senior account executive at a PR firm in Dubai also uses Gmail. “I use Gmail because it is fast and efficient. I especially love the conversation threads which keep my mailbox organised.” But like most good users, she uses a simple technique which has kept her email account safe from the prying eyes and codes of hackers. “I believe in changing my passwords very frequently. I change them nearly every two weeks.”

Despite these insecurities, the fact remains that Gmail is an extremely popular service, and the number of users is growing. What is needed — until the Google team mends the loopholes in their security structure – is to keep strict vigil on our accounts and continue to enjoy the service and its many fun benefits.

Following are a few ways for users to save their accounts from being compromised and for staying safe.

It’s all in the “S”

When visiting Gmail, a simple addition of an “s” to the address directs the user through a secure service, instead of a public one. Hacker attacks rely on techniques called “sniffing traffic”; a basic SSL encryption in your traffic makes it impossible (or very difficult) to hack. The address will be https://mail.google.com/mail/ and you are off to your secure browsing.

Filter it

The time when you are logged on to Gmail in one window (or tab) and in the other window you are navigating other pages, is when you are the most vulnerable to hacking. A hacker uses this time to add a filter within your email and uses that as a gateway to obtain certain types of email. To avoid this happening, you need to just periodically check both the ‘Filters’ and the ‘Forwarding and POP’ sections. Make sure every filter and setting is one that you have entered

Gmail’s help centre

Though they may be sluggish in responding to your queries, there are a lot of helpful tips readily available on Gmail’s Help Centre.

(This article originally appeared in the June 7th Edition of Sci-Tech, 2008 - It was incorrectly attributed to another author.)
Zemanta Pixie

No comments: