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Google clarifies that it still lets outside apps scan all your Gmail messages

September 20th, 2018 at 8:00 PM
Gmail privacy

Google announced last year it would finally stop scanning all of your Gmail messages for the purposes of  targeting more personalized ads to you, finally putting one of several longstanding privacy concerns dogging Google to rest. Or so it seemed. Because today, it turns out, we’ve learned that Google is still letting outside apps, well, do that very thing.

The disclosure came in a letter to lawmakers acknowledging the practice ahead of a privacy-focused hearing on Capitol Hill next week, at which representatives of companies including Google, Apple, Amazon and others will be on the hot seat. Not only will Google’s acknowledgement in the letter today about letting apps scan Gmail messages ensure it gets extra scrutiny next week — the company also said it basically lets those apps, within reason, use the data they acquire however they want.

“Developers may share data with third parties so long as they are transparent with the users about how they are using the data,” wrote Susan Molinari, the company’s vice president for public policy and government affairs for the Americas, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Lawmakers got that letter in July. Per the WSJ, here’s a bit more about how those outside apps can interact with your Gmail messages: “Using software tools provided by Gmail and other email services, outside app developers can access information about what products people buy, where they travel and which friends and colleagues they interact with the most. In some cases, employees at these app companies have read people’s actual emails in order to improve their software algorithms.”

Google isn’t commenting about the letter, which also details how the company insists it takes steps to vet those outside apps before allowing them to scan messages. That includes manually reviewing the privacy policies of those apps.

What lawmakers are likely to seize on next week is Google apparently allowing those apps wide latitude in how they use data obtained from user emails so long as the companies just say what it is they’re doing. The sky’s the limit, just be up front about it, it would seem.

“Google and other email providers have permitted hundreds of third-party apps to collect data with the permission of users,” the WSJ notes. “Some of those apps share email data with partners, who use it to understand the behavior of users and improve their ability to target ads to them.

“When users sign up to Earny, a tool that compares receipts in inboxes to prices across the web, their inboxes are also scanned by the computers of a different company, Return Path Inc., which collects data for marketers. Google’s statement to Congress suggests that the company is fine with arrangements like these, as long as Earny tells users what is happening with their data.”

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.

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