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Let me get one thing straight before I go any further. I am a caring father of four, the youngest of which is just 7 years old. If any of them were abducted, I would do everything in my power to find them. Just like any caring father.

Certainly the search for missing Madeleine McCann has been spearheaded by just such a caring parental unit, and my heart goes out to them.

However, while the use of the Internet has been a core component in keeping the publicity going and ensuring that as many people as possible are aware that a little girl is missing, one does have to ask when does care and concern cross the line and become an intrusion of privacy.

I am not talking about the despicable websites which have spawned all over the place using misspellings and similar sounding domains in order to put up a picture of the little girl and then flood the rest of the page with money earning advertising. Any such an attempt to cash in on the heartache of the McCann family in this way, carving off a bit of the hundreds of millions of hits that the official Find Madeleine site has received, is deserving of a beating with a big stick.

But what about when an ISP uses your personal email messages to further that search, without actually asking you first?

That’s exactly what one concerned chap in the UK asked me this week. The proud grandfather of a newly delivered grandson, he did the natural thing and sent a photo and some information about the baby boy to a number of friends using a BCC list. He was not expecting to see the following underneath his own private message in the copy that came back to him:

-
Special message from TalkTalk - Please help in the search for Madeleine McCann

Madeleine's aunt, Philomena McCann, has devised an email poster as she fears that Madeleine may have been taken to Spain where the girl's disappearance has generated less attention.

You can download the poster from here
http://news.aol.co.uk/web-appeal-over-missing-madeleine/article/20070510063809990001.

Anyone with information should contact the Portuguese police direct on 00 351 282 405 400 (international call rates apply) or contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.


The question here is not whether this is a good cause, there is no denying that, but rather if the ISP concerned had the right to attach what is essentially an advert to the private email of its members without even consulting them about it.

It’s not as if it is some free webmail thing, this chap pays for his account and was rightly disturbed at extra messages being sent with his mail in this way. What worries me, it has to be said, is who decides what a good cause is? Who determines the justification for interfering with the private email of an individual in this way? What if a message was at direct odds to your personal, ethical, religious beliefs? What about the legal impact upon your business if your ISP started attaching its own marketing messages to your email? OK, that’s unlikely to happen you may think, but then I would have thought it unlikely for this particular incident to occur as well.

Surely it would be enough for TalkTalk to leave the appeal on its website, which is fair enough and nobody could argue about that. By adding the same message, without consent, to everyone’s email messages, is TalkTalk not guilty of spamming?

The emotiveness of the missing Madeleine story threatens to cloud what is, I feel, something of an important point of principle here: that private email should remain just that.

I would be hugely interested to know if Grandad and I are alone in our concerns.

What do you think?


Please do visit the official Find Madeleine website and help in the search for this missing little girl in any way that you can.

As Editorial Director and Managing Analyst with IT Security Thing I am putting more than two decades of consulting experience into providing opinionated insight regarding the security threat landscape for IT security professionals. As an Editorial Fellow with Dennis Publishing, I bring more than two decades of writing experience across the technology industry into publications such as Alphr, IT Pro and (in good old fashioned print) PC Pro. I also write for SC Magazine UK and Infosecurity, as well as The Times and Sunday Times newspapers. Along the way I have been honoured with a Technology Journalist of the Year award, and three Information Security Journalist of the Year awards. Most humbling, though, was the Enigma Award for 'lifetime contribution to IT security journalism' bestowed on me in 2011.

i think thats dispicible. i would expect email spam like this on emails from free webmails such as hotmail but not from an ISP.

I agree with jbennet. I do know of some cheap ISPs that add their own "Sponored By" line to the bottom of emails (in a similar fashion to Hotmail). But I don't think even a free email service would go so far as to add a couple of paragraphs including, not just links, but phone numbers.

Everyone draws the line in different places. This site, for example, inserts IntelliTXT ads into member-generated content. I think that crosses a similar line. Others do not. I think Google violates several principles by caching websites, and serving cached copies of your content side-by-side with their ads. Most consider that viewpoint radical. While I too firmly believe the ISP crossed the line by adding content to private emails, I find irony in your posting this story here, with adverts for Microsoft Live OneCare and Intel Xeon processors embedded in your article. People who live in glass houses...

In fairness, I was well aware that advertising would be inserted in this posting and so it is not the same issue at all. Your final comment is, if I may say so, somewhat disingenuous.

My point is that we have an expectation of privacy when it comes to our personal email, and certainly do not expect that expectation to be shattered by the ISP in this way.

My point remains valid, namely, people draw the line in different places.

There is no expectation of privacy when it comes to email. The nature of email systems, which use a store-and-forward methodology, as well as the nature of the web itself, means that any communication, including emails, we generate, will be stored indefinitely on any variety of servers.

I'm amazed at all the scandals with incriminating emails and chat logs, as if the culprits were simply oblivious to how the internet works.

I'm not condoning what the ISP did in this case. Far from it. It's reprehensible. In an age where we communicate with each other using systems that make it all too easy to alter what we say, we have to learn to respect the integrity of what others type. That responsibility lies with the service providers, be they forum operators or email providers.

The actions of the ISP weren't objectionable because of any expectation of privacy, but because they subverted the intent of the email author. If you feel outraged by that, then you can begin to understand those who react negatively to in-text advertising schemes. I'm not asking for agreement, that ship sailed long ago, but being completely dismissive of my viewpoint and the similarities between altering emails and altering forum postings, that's disingenuous.

But, hey, Davey - I did like the article.

The difference between injecting ads into an email and injecting ads into DaniWeb posts is that the user pays for the email account and expects their monthly payment for the service to offset the service provider's costs of providing their bandwidth. DaniWeb is very forthcoming in saying that we provide the ability for users to interact via posts in exchange for displaying advertisements to users to offset our costs.

That's a red herring, as was Davey's argument about privacy. No one could reasonably claim that Daniweb shouldn't have advertisements. The issue is simple: is it appropriate to alter what someone else has written, injecting content they neither control nor endorse? You agree it's despicable when the "TalkTalk" ISP does it, but rationalize it when you do it. What if I became a sponsor, thus "paying" for Daniweb. Would you remove IntelliTXT from all my posts?

Hold on....you're missing the point completely....
Daniweb is a public domain.
Your personal email isnt.

Being the public domain as it is, and a free service, i think they have the right to inject whatever advertising they so choose to substain the costs of running the site (because there are costs).

The guy's personal email on the other hand is private and paid for. Which makes that addition an intrusion of his rights, IMO.

So any comparison between that situation, and public, free services, i'm sorry to say, bear no salt in my view.

I've already discussed the private vs. public fallacy, and already challenged the argument that payment makes a difference. If you're going to disagree, that's fine, but at least come up with a compelling counter-argument.

The email provider owns their service, so they have the "right" to inject content into messages delivered via their service, or at least that's their viewpoint. That's the same viewpoint Daniweb has: we're advertiser supported and own all site content, so will inject content directly into your posts, whether you endorse or agree with the altered content or not.

I fail to see any difference in the core issue: is it right for a service provider to alter member/user-generated content to push an agenda, product, or service?

The real difference being that DaniWeb does NOT alter the context of the posting, it alters the formatting by adding the advertising links to certain keywords. The underlying message is not changed, there is no confusion over what the author has written. Forget about the whole 'I didn't endorse the advertising link' argument, that is spurious in this case.

What the ISP did in this case and what this posting is about, is change the context of the message as written by the author by adding a whole new block of text to it.

That is why is it an unnaceptable invasion of privacy, and that is why it is wrong.

If the context of the posting is an answer to a programming question, and words within the posting are converted into links to irrelevant products and services, the context of the post has been profoundly altered.

IntelliTXT does indeed add "whole new blocks of texts", sometimes several, inside of a post, completely unrelated to the context of the post.

But I'll let you have the last word, as we've reached the point where I've had my say and anything else would simply be repetitive. Also, now that blog conversations are uspide-down, it's incredibly difficult to follow who is saying what to whom.

The article starter has earned a lot of community kudos, and such articles offer a bounty for quality replies.