While the “exposé” The Wall Street Journal published on July 2 may not come as a surprise to the technology buff, it is still upsetting for ordinary email users to learn that Google is allowing people to read their email messages.
The next day, the technology company confirmed to BBC News the allegations and explained that “the practice was not against its policies.” At present, there are 1.4 billion Gmail accounts.
Users who installed third-party apps to access their Gmail may have allowed third-party developers to skim through their messages. The “usual practice” should be only machines could read through the messages and search for keywords in order to determine what types of products or services can be offered. Gmail messages have advertisements on top of the message list.
However, the WSJ article said some third-party developers have been skimming through users’ private emails even if Google has promised to stop reading emails for Gmail Ads exactly a year ago, according to Android Authority.
WSJ interviewed two dozen employees of companies that create the email app services. It mentioned the firm Edison Software as one of the many developers that have allowed humans to sift through the emails of thousands of Gmail users to do research for its new mobile app that will, yes, organize emails.
When connecting to third-party email apps, users are asked if they would like to give permission to link their Gmail accounts. As in the WSJ story, granting permission to access also means allowing humans, and not just machines, to read users’ emails.
In essence, if users cannot put up with this practice, it is best not to use any third-party email apps or management tools.
Any user could easily spot that their emails have been monitored, at least by machines, based on the kind of advertisements on top of the page. If the user is a frequent traveler, expect advertisements of airline companies or travel deals. If he or she is a sports fan, sports products or services will instantly be placed on the page.
Android Authority said the allegations “are not revelatory for the act of email skimming” because email providers allow developers to peek at email messages and users have can always opt in or opt out. The companies WSJ interviewed openly admitted that looking at emails is “common practice” and said that they abide by “strict rules” as indicated in the user agreements.
What might be unsettling is that users are not aware, or at least informed, that somebody else’s eyes are reading their emails. Not all users can read between the lines of “user agreements” that is if they ever read them at all.
Google only confirmed the allegations but did not give details on what it would do on the matter. The company did advise users to use the Security Checkup to see if there are apps that may be invading their privacy.