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NSA-style spying has been around for years

(MoneyWatch) Many people are angry over security agency electronic surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden and, earlier, other National Security Agency whistle-blowers.

But the concern about private Internet-based communications is ironic: Some of the major service providers have already been doing exactly what the government does, and more. The intent isn't national security. The companies do their own spying to better target marketing.

Yahoo (YHOO) recently introduced the newest version of Yahoo! Mail, which will become mandatory for Web access starting July 9. Aside from a new interface, there's at least one other change:

Yahoo! provides personally relevant product features, content, and advertising, and spam and malware detection by scanning and analyzing Mail, Messenger, and other communications content. Some of these features and advertising will be based on our understanding of the content and meaning of your communications. For instance, we scan and analyze email messages to identify key elements of meaning and then categorize this information for immediate and future use.

Not only does Yahoo! (and other e-mail vendors) have all the revealing metadata that security agencies can and do ask for, but they literally will review all outgoing and incoming messages for keywords that might help better target marketing.

Google (GOOG) has done something similar for years with its Gmail service, as the company readily admits:

For example, if you've recently received a lot of messages about photography or cameras, a deal from a local camera store might be interesting. On the other hand, if you've reported these messages as spam, you probably don't want to see that deal. This type of automated processing is how many email services provide features like spam filtering and spell checking.

Google goes on to say that the scanning is all done by machine, and that "no humans read your email." Does that really limit the potential damage to your privacy?

Microsoft (MSFT) also scans e-mail, but claims that it does so only to provide security and anti-spam services. It is true that all the services would have to scan e-mail to help avert attacks.

And you don't even have to be subscribed to these services to have them completely scan your e-mail or text messages. Exchange messages or e-mails with anyone on Yahoo! or Google and those companies will vacuum up everything, whether you or the other party wrote it.

In addition, there is all the metadata as well as any additional location data that might be picked up from your smartphone.

When it comes to privacy in communications, there may be precious little left.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.