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Breaking Tristero

Sean, Standley Lake Library

I’ve always admired Thomas Pynchon’s second novel, a short comedic work called The Crying of Lot 49. Crying is a wild paranoid romp about the secret history of Tristero, a conspiratorial mail service, visually symbolized by a muted horn, operating in defiance of the United States Post Office. People are willing to fight and die defending the secrets of this subversive mail system—though befitting the novel’s hallucinatory sensibilities, Tristero's actual existence remains unproven in the end.

About twenty years ago, as e-mail became popular on college campuses, I remember a professor describing electronic mail as a form of Tristero, since it lets people send letters they’d otherwise have to put a stamp on and mail. Besides being quicker, e-mail was also perhaps a better venue for sensitive messages since it was supposed to be more private.

How times have changed!

I was thinking of Pynchon’s novel and the professor’s comment recently in light of Google’s statement on the privacy of its Gmail service. Librarians pride themselves in assuring the privacy of patron information needs, but we seldom consider privacy when recommending an email service. We suggest Gmail to patrons all the time. Yet Google now states Gmail’s users have no privacy rights, and it employs all data it can find on you—emails, photo attachments, and so on—to better target advertisements to you and your friends. Google argues that since they provide the service, everything transmitted through it is fair game for their prying eyes.

Do all email providers do this? If they’re free, like Yahoo, it’s pretty likely. Is it the end of the world? I guess that depends on your privacy expectations. Generally speaking, it’s not like Gmail’s employees are intercepting your messages and reading them out loud in their staff room. With millions of emails transmitted every day, Google can’t afford that extra-special personal touch when it comes to snooping. Software filters and algorithms do the job for them, leaving their eavesdropping tactics coldly impersonal.

Can you avoid having your email analyzed? Yes, for a price. There are some email providers who guarantee privacy safeguards against both government and corporate spying, but users must pay a minimal charge. Some notable examples are Runbox and Countermail. You could also try sending your messages by carrier pigeon, but good luck including an attachment! In the meanwhile, just keep in mind what Pynchon has to say elsewhere in his novel: “This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl.”