Information is everyone’s most valuable asset, from corporate conglomerates to college students. If one assumes people tend to search for what they’re interested in, then its probably not a stretch to say that Google has more information about the personal activities and interests of its millions of customers than most companies have had in the history of, well, history. This is why John makes a good point.
Google can’t (yet) reasonably attribute it’s collected user information to a specific person, but rather to an IP address (only geographic information). Surely Gmail with its generous 1GB 2GB+ of storage has proven useful for many people, just like Google search has been for the past few years. But even if I didn’t already have free web email, I wouldn’t use it.
Being in the business of information management and organization gives you a lot of power, exhibited by the huge revenue Google receives through targeted advertising systems. To successfully target customers, it must acquire as much information uniquely attributed to each of its customers as possible. This means Gmail, just like the rest of Google, must acquire information about its users by parsing through emails for information.
Here’s the rub. The content of every search query I perform is entirely controlled by me, but the situation is turned around with email. I clearly wouldn’t ever search for things like my SSN or passwords on a public search engine. However, if I forgot a password to a website, the first option I tend to use is “Send password to user email account.”
Even though Google uses a cookie to uniquely ID it’s search users to create a user history, and even though mine is set to expire (at a rather generous) “Sunday, January 17, 2038 6:33:16 AM”, I trade that privacy for Google’s convenience factor. That, and it’s a trivial matter to nuke cookies. Crawling the contents of user’s email, even if it is automated, crosses my privacy line.
Paranoid? Maybe. But even if I have to run my own mail server, I won’t be letting 3rd parties sift through my emails.