Google offers Gmail privacy, but outside software developers aren’t so restrained.
Instead of being surprised by bad news about Gmail privacy, we ought to be suspicious of free services. Google is obviously spending a great deal of money to provide “free” data storage involved in the email service. And free apps are also trying to get a return on their investment. I don’t know how much privacy is even possible on the internet, but it is unlikely to be reliable when it is free.
The Wall Street Journal reports, “Tech’s ‘Dirty Secret’: The App Developers Sifting Through Your Gmail.”
But the internet giant continues to let hundreds of outside software developers scan the inboxes of millions of Gmail users who signed up for email-based services offering shopping price comparisons, automated travel-itinerary planners or other tools. Google does little to police those developers, who train their computers—and, in some cases, employees—to read their users’ emails, a Wall Street Journal examination has found.
One of those companies is Return Path Inc., which collects data for marketers by scanning the inboxes of more than two million people who have signed up for one of the free apps in Return Path’s partner network using a Gmail, Microsoft Corp. or Yahoo email address. Computers normally do the scanning, analyzing about 100 million emails a day. At one point about two years ago, Return Path employees read about 8,000 unredacted emails to help train the company’s software, people familiar with the episode say.
In another case, employees of Edison Software, another Gmail developer that makes a mobile app for reading and organizing email, personally reviewed the emails of hundreds of users to build a new feature, says Mikael Berner, the company’s CEO.
Letting employees read user emails has become “common practice” for companies that collect this type of data, says Thede Loder, the former chief technology officer at eDataSource Inc., a rival to Return Path. He says engineers at eDataSource occasionally reviewed emails when building and improving software algorithms.
“Some people might consider that to be a dirty secret,” says Mr. Loder. “It’s kind of reality.”
Neither Return Path nor Edison asked users specifically whether it could read their emails. Both companies say the practice is covered by their user agreements, and that they used strict protocols for the employees who read emails. eDataSource says it previously allowed employees to read some email data but recently ended that practice to better protect user privacy.
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