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July 4, 2018

Developers may have been reading your private Gmail messages

by John_A

Even though Google does not allow its employees access to your private emails, the same stringent privacy policy does not extend to third-party developers. In addition to being able to read your full emails in Gmail, Google also gives developers access to details like the recipient’s address and time stamps, The Wall Street Journal reported. However, it doesn’t appear that any user information has been misused at this time.

If you have used a Gmail plugin for price comparison, travel planning, or other tools, your emails may have been exposed to outside eyes. Google claims that it vets all third-party developers before granting access to its users’ emails, and that the user’s permission is required. The problem is that the request for permission often doesn’t state whether you’re granting access to your emails to a human or a computer. “The vetting process involves checking whether a company’s identity is correctly represented by its app, its privacy policy states that it will monitor emails, and the data that the company is requesting makes sense for what the company does,” according to The Verge.

In one example, Google partner Return Path scans more than 100 million emails a day sent and received by Gmail users using its computer network, but its employees also read more than 8,000 emails to train the software, the Journal noted. Return Path claims that its algorithms can detect personal emails and discard those from its system. Initially, the algorithm mis-categorized personal emails, and so two data analysts spent several days reading 8,000 emails to train the system to properly label emails. Another Google partner, Edison Software, claims that it needed access to emails to develop the artificial intelligence to build its smart reply tools.

Gmail isn’t the only email platform that allows developers access to users’ emails. Microsoft and Verizon’s Oath — which owns Yahoo — also provide similar access to third-party developers. As with Gmail, developers tapping into Microsoft’s and Oath’s services must ask for user consent. Though privacy may be a concern, some of these apps provide a valuable service in exchange for access to emails. Earny, a partner of Return Path, offers an online price adjustment service when it finds a lower price. By being able to scan your inbox for receipts, Earny can save users money and time when comparison shopping.

Still, Gmail’s app crisis comes on the heels of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, which brought public scrutiny to how platforms manage, maintain, and share data with third-party partners. For its part, Google announced last year that it would stop scanning your Gmail as part of its targeted ad service. Instead, Google said its computers will continue to scan your emails as part of its efforts to deliver artificial intelligence-powered features, like smart replies, as part of Gmail’s major overhaul.

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