Is Google Reading Your Email?

Category: Email , Privacy

Summer is traditionally a slow time for tech news. Big conferences, where important research and product releases are officially announced, are held in the Spring and Fall. But publishers need stories to publish, so if news does not materialize it must be manufactured, and if its manufactured outrage, all the better. Outrage gets more clicks than anything rated “G” on the Internet. Read on the see why I'm ranting today...

Google Let Humans Read Your Email. Should Everybody Panic?

A story published this week in the Wall Street Journal head this headline: “Tech’s Dirty Secret: App Developers Sifting Through Your Gmail.” Wow, that’s how to grab eyeballs! Let’s see what this is all about.

A lot of companies produce apps that work with Google's Gmail to add new features. Developers need actual email samples to develop, test and train their apps. To assist such software developers, Google lets them access large chunks of the email that passes through Gmail servers daily. By “large” chunks, we mean tens of thousands of emails randomly selected by Google and anonymized (stripped of sender and recipient info) before they’re made available to app developers. Google Mail processes billions of emails per day, so “large” is pretty tiny when considered in context.

Furthermore, the permission of the owners of email is also required before an app can access the owner’s email. Gmail explicitly asks if you wish to allow XYZ app to “"Read, send, delete and manage your email." If you respond “allow,” then you really can’t argue that you have an expectation of privacy with respect to that app and your email. But the WSJ did.

Google reading your email?  No.

The privacy violation, according to the WSJ reporter, is that employees of the app developers are also reading your email. You only signed up to let an app read it, right? This is an “outrage,” a breach of trust, a “dirty trick” perpetrated upon unwitting users by “tech,” the entire industry, not just the app developers who Google permits to ask permission to read your email.

Yes, this is how mountains are made from mole hills. It’s funny, really, until it’s done so often that it becomes annoying.

Does it really matter whether a machine or a human is reading your email? It can; machines are not good at discerning context, the larger body of words associated with a given phrase or email that put it in perspective or illuminate its meaning. “Kill Bill” doesn’t make much sense until a human has read your email praising Uma Thurman’s performance in the film by that name; a machine might infer that you have your "sights" set on a former President.

A Privacy Invasion?

But is it an invasion of your privacy for a human to piggyback on an app’s permission to read your anonymized email? I don’t think so. But apparently, the WSJ does, and so does CNet, which ran not one but two follow-up articles on the WSJ “expose’.”

One of those articles says “the news that third-party developers -- and especially their employees -- could read people's emails may come as a surprise to people who didn't quite understand what they were signing up for or the extent that human eyes would be involved.”

First, I would not call it “news” that the developer of an app to which I have given permission to read my email is, indeed, reading my email. Second, it’s not clear how that developer is distinct from its employees, let alone why it’s “especially” newsworthy that the developer’s employees can read my email. (Did I mention that these are anonymized emails?) As the unidentified spokesperson of one developer said, obviously exasperated with CNet’s line of questioning: “As anyone who knows anything about software knows, humans program software – artificial intelligence comes directly from human intelligence.”

Before an algorithm is written in Java, Python, C++, or any other programming language, it is worked out by human beings one tedious tiny step at a time. That is why employees of these app developers needed access to email samples - to develop apps! There was no sinister or prurient interest in what Gmail users were saying.

Google felt obliged to weigh in on this manufactured controversy, telling CNet: “To be absolutely clear, nobody at Google reads your Gmail.” Google announced a year ago that they would no longer scan Gmail messages to serve targeted ads. So no software robots are peeking, either.

The bottom line here is that some app developers requested permission to use some actual Gmail messages to help with their coding efforts. Google supplied those messages, minus the personally identifying information. And real humans who work for those app developers actually saw those messages. Nothing much to see here, folks. You can return to the hammock, and that book you've been trying to finish.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Google Reading Your Email?"

(See all 29 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Robin H
05 Jul 2018

I was under the impression that Gmail messages are encrypted between sender and receiver. Is this incorrect?

Posted by:

Joe V
05 Jul 2018

I wish they'd read my mail, star the important ones. and delete the rest

Posted by:

05 Jul 2018

Thanks for shining a little light on the real facts regarding this issue. The WSJ sensational expose even made it to mainstream news in my country, which is a very long way from the USA. The information you have provided was obviously too boring to be included.
So thanks for the boring stuff Bob.

Posted by:

Shaun Thomas
06 Jul 2018

I guess no one here has knowledge of traffic analysis. Modern computers can do very well at getting useful information from extremely large amounts of data. This was a part, and a less well known, invention of Gordan Welshman and others at Bletchley Park, c. 1941-2. It continues to be a massive part of what's done at GCHQ. It's now known as metadata analysis.

Posted by:

David Baker
06 Jul 2018

I know they do because that's how they sync up my Google Calendar. It's nice not having to enter in my flight info onto the calendar for my upcoming Southwest Flights. "Free" seems to always come with a price...

Posted by:

Bob K
06 Jul 2018

To explore the sequence of events that might take place with some machine reading anonymized emails.

Let's say I email someone about the "Kill Bill" movie. That email gets stripped of the routing information -- but gets read, and flagged, by some process. The alarms go off -- and it gets reported to the powers-in-charge. They run off to some judge and get a warrant to read all my emails.

No big problem to match the body of my email with all the ones spinning on disks, until they find the one I sent. Now that one, thru the routing info, does identify me, and then every email I've sent is turned over to the authorities.

But, I use Gmail because I have had experiences in the past with my ISP, with their mail servers, reading and silently dumping emails I sent when they thought there was something bad in them.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

I'm just going to throw out some numbers based on your rant. Since I may get 50 e-mails a day, mostly junk, a few might reveal that my cousins and I are having a family reunion. What are the mathematical chances that someone would read mine (all 50) or luck out on the meaty ONE about where we will stay? I cannot imagine that there is a line of employees somewhere saying to the others, "Hey, you've got to hear this e-mail. They're going to eat at the Black Pelican!" On the other hand, it might be serious information, but that could be hacked anyway. Where's my outrage at Google and those other snoops? I think I lost my feelings of privacy when my mailbox was pilfered in front of my house.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

The developers needed real emails?
They can send their own email messages.
They do not need to use other people's messages.
Something smells here.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

that people can be bothered being outraged by this.

Have a good day Bob

PS please note I used Three(3) exclamation marks!

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

I AGREE WITH FRED, LET THE $%#3@$#9((5's write e-mails to each other to read?????????????????

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

Let 'em read my emails. Besides being horribly bored, once in a while I pass along great jokes and such that would liven up their day. If I really thought they were scrutinizing my writings, then I will oblige them with stuff to make their heads spin....

I don't like or trust Google but this seems almost pure paranoia.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

So how do we stop google spying on us?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Did you read the article, or just the headline?

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

Hey Bob - it's not just in the tech niche... The amount of non-news has been steadily increasing across the board, over the past few years. Obviously, there's no shame in raking in ill-gotten-clicks for payola. Some of us make a game of it; honing our skills to discern which links will likely take us to fluff and which will lead to actual substance. But, it takes a lot of practice and a sharp eye, to get through the day without landing on drivel.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

If Google isn't reading your emails then their software is incredibly adept at guessing which ones are spam.

It's never a good idea to use email to send information that could be harmful if intercepted. And even if you're on a service like Proton Mail it won't help if the receiver is using a non-encrypted email service.

If a service is free then the user is the commodity.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

Could somebody post a simple list of things to do to protect your privacy on gMail? There is a bewildering list of choices when you click on "Advanced Settings" and go through the list under "Privacy and Security". Where is the setting (if any) that prevents app developers from sifting through your email? And does this apply to all browsers or only if you're using Chrome, for instance?

Posted by:

06 Jul 2018

I learned way back at the end of the 80's never to say,visit, or send anything over the company walkie-talkie, computer or phone that you wouldn't want the world to know. I've been using my private communication devices since '99' and I still feel the same way about electronic communication. I have had that idea reinforced quite a few times by reading the articles and comments from the 'Ask Bob'weekley. Thanks Bob!

Posted by:

07 Jul 2018

I recently caught my email provider snooping in my emails so a better title would be, "Is Google the Only One Reading Your Email?"

Posted by:

Sara Cleveland
09 Jul 2018

I remember the founder of Sun Microsystems saying many years ago that we no longer had privacy and to get over it. My rule of thumb for e-mail, is I don't push the send button unless I'm willing to see the content of my e-mail in a court deposition. So if Google is actually reading my e-mail, like another poster said, they will be bored. BTW, my work requires using databases that have a lot of confidential content so we use a VPN and encryption. Haven't' ever been hacked, but nothing is hacker-proof.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2018

ProtonMail in Switzerland is the most secure email. It is encrypted of course !
NEVER trust any American program !

Posted by:

16 Jul 2018

big brother is always watching!!!

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