Is Google Reading Your Email?
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.
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 5 Jul 2018
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Is Google Reading Your Email? (Posted: 5 Jul 2018)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved