outlook

Microsoft is quietly recycling Outlook email accounts

Like Yahoo, Microsoft is recycling email accounts, and apparently doing so without mentioning it in service agreements for Hotmail, Live, and Outlook.com.

Yahoo recently started recycling unused accounts and was harshly criticized for this policy. The company reassured users that proper measures where implemented to prevent privacy disasters like identity theft through data obtained from old e-mail.

Microsoft, however, for years has had a similar policy for reuse of Hotmail accounts. The policy has been extended to other Microsoft-branded online services like Windows Live ID and Outlook.com, Microsoft has confirmed to Webwereld, a Dutch IDG publication.

The Microsoft Services Agreement mentions that users are required to log in to their Microsoft accounts "periodically, at a minimum of every 270 days, to keep the Microsoft branded services portion of the services active." Otherwise "we may cancel your access" and "your data may be permanently deleted from our servers."

Microsoft does not mention the possibility that email account names will be recycled.  The company confirms that this is the policy, however. When the account becomes inactive "the email account is automatically queued for deletion from our servers. Then, after a total of 360 days, the email account name is made available again," according to an email statement from Microsoft.

Privacy issues, misdirected email

Despite the preventive measures, several Web mail users report getting highly sensitive emails addressed to previous account holders. Recently, Information Week documented several cases of new Yahoo users getting emails addressed to the old user of the account, including emails from Web services, friends, and family.

Webwereld has seen mail correspondence from a confused and frustrated Hotmail user, who has received several private emails addressed to a namesake, which turned out to be the former holder of the account. This former account holder, not being made aware by Microsoft of the possibility and related risks of account recycling, is considering filing a complaint about Microsoft with the Dutch data protection agency CBP.

Mike Rispoli of the London-based, nonprofit organization Privacy International said that such a complaint could be a good thing, since it would raise awareness of the issue with data protection agencies.

"When Yahoo announced this, experts warned about and predicted serious security and privacy issues. Yahoo downplayed these risks, and ignored these critics, but now we see these concerns were legitimate," Rispoli said.

The least Microsoft should do is clearly inform its users about the account reuse policy, Rispoli said. "Microsoft should absolutely mention this policy in their service agreement. Users should be made aware of this."

Privacy International is generally critical of the recycling policies, in terms of how they are implemented and how they are communicated. "These companies do this purely from a business perspective, to increase their bottom line and attract new users, but with disregard for any privacy implications and user rights," Rispoli said. "This is a serious trust issue, and the trust is broken."

Google, meanwhile, has confirmed to Webwereld that it does not recycle unused accounts. Users can delete their accounts, but this "won't free up your username. Once you delete your Gmail address, you won't be able to use that same username (username@gmail.com) in the future," Google says on its site.

On its part, Microsoft says: "We listen closely to the feedback we receive from customers, and are always evaluating how to ensure Outlook.com is the best email service available."

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