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Two in five Brits are worried that free webmail comes at the expense of privacy because firms are scanning their messages in order to serve up targeted ads.

A similar 40 per cent of 1,800 Brits polled in a survey by alternative freemail firm GMX were unaware of the practice. One third of Brits quizzed during GMX's Attitudes to Email study reckoned scanning of personal email should be allowed only on a voluntary basis, with providers offering the ability to opt out.

Only one in 50 of those quizzed thought the practice was in their best interests. One in five (18 per cent) were indifferent to the scanning, with the rest either against or previously unaware of the practice. Negative reactions included anything from embarrassment to anxiety.

"It is understandable that many Britons are wary about their private emails being scanned for advertising reasons," said Eva Heil, MD at GMX. "It is certainly important that every user is at least informed if this is done by their email service.

"At GMX, we view emails to be like sealed letters, and so we do not scan private email content for ad reasons."

Heil drew a distinction between filtering out spam and viruses from incoming messages and scanning messages solely to serve up ads. Some webmail outfits, such as GMX, scan for malware and spam but not for the purposes of serving up targeted ads. Scanning simply in order to serve up ads is a sore point for many consumers, according to the GMX-sponsored research, which also found that the average Briton maintains an average of two email accounts which they check once a day. ®

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