In the wake of the Google v China email hacking scandal, the Guardian has revealed that it’s not just human rights activists that are susceptible to email hacking. The truth is that any user of free web-based email is at risk.

Fortunately, those that use Gmail can check who has accessed their account recently by: logging into their account, clicking on mail, scrolling down to where last account activity is displayed and clicking on details. But what exactly can you do about it if you do discover that an unknown IP address has accessed the account?

  • Make sure that your Google account is set up to alert you as soon as there is any unusual activity on your account.
  • Change your password to something that is unique and contains letters, numbers and symbols – in other words make it strong.

More importantly, don’t assume that free email is suitable for sending confidential information. Many, such as Google, will ‘read’ the content of your email in order to tailor services (to serve up relevant ads, for example). The technology to do this is similar to that used to scan email for viruses, but the difference is what happens to that information. What if a hacker could access it – would they be able to find passwords, bank details and so on?

It’s important that you review the way you manage your online email. Do you have three years of shopping receipts, password reminders and personal and business correspondence stored on your email account? What a gold mine of personal data this would be for a hacker!

This is especially risky for corporate users of web based services. What would stop a hacker from selling the data they collect to a competitor?

The fact is we are now using the internet to send and receive huge amounts of sensitive data. We need to ensure that our email and free webmail accounts have a high level of security, because, as the Gmail incident highlights, they are currently not a good repository for sensitive information.