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While most tech companies that offer free email services are moving away from email scanning as a source of information for advertisers to target users more efficiently, Oath – the Verizon subsidiary that manages AOL and Yahoo and its webmail offerings – plans to continue with the practice.

In fact, as Doug Sharp, Oath’s VP of data, measurements and insights told The Wall Street Journal, the practice “has become one of the company’s most effective methods for improving ad targeting.”

About the email scanning
Oath scans only commercial and promotional emails, he said, and uses the information to profile people by interests and place appropriate cookies on their computers, which then allow advertisers to target users who visit websites owned by Oath (Endgaget, HuffPost, TechCrunch, Yahoo! News, etc.).

For example: if users receive in their inbox receipts for Netflix or other streaming services, they will likely be right target for ads for new movies or shows. Or, if they receive confirmations for airplane tickets they bought, they can be targeted with ads for hotels or other offerings at that destination.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to AOL Mail and Yahoo Mail users, as Oath has noted in their updated privacy policy earlier this year that they will be scanning and analyzing emails, instant messages, attachments, and other communications so that they can “deliver, personalize and develop relevant features, content, advertising and Services.”

The scanning is performed by automated systems, which strip out personally identifying information before humans can look at user data.

It’s good to note that the scanning is not limited to the free email offerings – paying customers’ inboxes are also fair game. But, if they wish to, users can opt out of the scanning.

Privacy controls for legacy Yahoo and AOL products can be found here. Go to Ad Interest Manager > Your Advertising Choices > On Yahoo > choose “Opt Out” for Yahoo and “Opt-Out of interest-based advertising” for AOL.

Will the choice pay off?
Tech-based privacy scandals have been coming thick and fast in the last couple of years, and tech companies are under increased scrutiny when it comes to protecting user privacy and that of their communications.

Google has moved away from email scanning for ad-serving purposes a year ago, as it can collect similar information through Google Search and YouTube.

Oath (and Verizon) are obviously not too worried about getting it wrong, but it remains to be see whether advertisers will find Oath’s offer enticing.

After all, Yahoo Mail hosts only 200 million accounts, a rather small number when compared to the 1.4 billion Gmail users, and the number of AOL Mail users is smaller still: in 2017, it was apparently around 25 million.