ACM wants you to be spied on

Posted on 12 August 2013

I am a fortunate person: I do not use Apple or Microsoft products, and my use of Google is limited to their scholarly services. My pattern of using Facebook is under strict control. Hence the NSA scandal left me relatively unscathed: perhaps there are still bits of my personal data that the NSA does not have yet. At least this is what I thought.

The ACM membership comes with a forwarding email address, which is useful if you anticipate frequent changes of your affiliation and you want to maintain a professional and permanent email address. ACM applies spam filtering before the mails are forwarded -- a commendable act given the sheer volume of academic spam. Unfortunately ACM outsourced filtering to Postini, which was recently gobbled up by Google. So even if you make a deliberate effort to avoid Google, they will scan every single incoming mail that arrives to your forwarding address.

What Happened

As an ACM member, I made my forwarding address my primary address for professional correspondence. When I learned about Google's interference, I wanted to opt out from filtering, so I wrote the following email to tech support:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I recently learned that Postini had been taken over by Google. Therefore I would like to exclude my ACM forwarding address from email filtering, as I am not comfortable with Google spying on my correspondence. I wonder if it is possible.

Thank you.

Yours Faithfully,

I did not have to wait long for the response, although its content was disturbing:

Dear Peter Wittek:

Email forwarding has been deactivated as requested.


When did I actually request deactivating forwarding? Unambiguous sentences were never my forte, but the email I sent clearly stated that I wanted to opt out from filtering, not forwarding. Even if I wanted to deactivate forwarding, I could have just set a dummy email address on my profile without asking for anybody's help.

My entire professional correspondence was blocked from around SGT 9.30pm, 7 August 2013. Emails sent to my address bounced. Google and NSA were probably still able to read my incoming mails, but not me.

Naturally, I wrote several emails to reactivate my forwarding address, even if the price was to continue being spied on. The time difference between my location in Singapore and the headquarters in New York did not facilitate a quick resolution either. As time passed, my requests for reactivation became more and more desperate. Eventually email forwarding was reactivated around SGT 9.30pm, 9 August 2013, accompanied by the following note:

All mail sent to your address will automatically pass through an Spam and Virus filtering system.

Google has you.


It is never a good idea to denigrate an organization that you are associated with, but I believe that the integrity of ACM as a professional body is compromised. If you attempt to opt out from spying, you might face a 48-hour deactivation of your email. Although I had decades to get used to it, extensive and unjustified surveillance still bothers me even in 2013. I used to be proud being an ACM member, but now I must consider changing allegiance -- preferably to a less spying-prone, non-US-based professional body. I should also give up chasing after the mirage of a permanent email address; it will never happen.

Tags: Surveillance

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