Google reportedly allows outside app developers to read people's Gmails

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Gmail's new web interfaceGoogle

  • Google promised a year ago to provide more privacy to Gmail users but The Wall Street Journal reports that hundreds of app makers have access to millions of inboxes belonging to Gmail users.
  • The outside app companies receive access to messages from Gmail users who signed up for price comparison services and automated travel itinerary planners, according to the WSJ.
  • Some of these companies train software to scan the email. In other cases, companies reportedly enable their workers to pore over private messages.

Employees working for hundreds of software developers are reading the private messages of Gmail users, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

A year ago, Google promised to stop scanning the inboxes of Gmail users but the company has not done much to protect Gmail inboxes obtained by outside software developers, according to the newspaper. Gmail users who signed up for "email based services," "shopping price comparisons," and "automated travel-itinerary planners" are most at risk of having their private messages read, according to the Journal.

Hundreds of app developers electronically "scan" inboxes of the people who signed up for some of these programs, and in some cases employees do the reading, the paper reported. Google declined to comment.

The revelation comes at a bad time for Google and Gmail, the world's largest email service with 1.4 billion users. All the top tech companies are under pressure in the United States and in Europe to do more to protect user privacy and to be more transparent about any parties with access to people's data. The increased scrutiny follows the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the now defunct data firm accused of misusing the personal information of more than 80 million Facebook users in an attempt to sway elections.

It's not news that Google and most of the other top email providers enable outside developers to access the inboxes of users. In most cases, the people who signed up for the special price-comparison deals and other programs agreed to provide access to their inboxes as part of the opt-in process.

gmail opti-inGoogleGmail's opt-in alert spells out generally what a user is agreeing to.

In Google's case, outside developers must pass a vetting process, and as part of that process, Google makes sure that they have an acceptable privacy agreement. What is unclear is how closely these outside developers adhere to their own agreements and whether Google does anything to ensure they do. Something else that's unclear is whether Gmail users are fully aware that individual employees may be reading their emails, as opposed to an automated system.

Mikael Berner, CEO of Edison Software, a Gmail developer that offers a mobile app for organizing email, told the Journal that emails from hundreds of Gmail users were read by employees as part of an effort to build a new feature. An executive at another company said that the reading of emails by employees has become "common practice."

But everyone who spoke to the Journal confirmed that the practice is specified in their user agreements and they have implemented strict rules for employees regarding the handling of email.

It's interesting to note that judging from the Journal's story, very little indicates that Google is doing anything different from Microsoft, or the other top email providers. According to the paper, nothing in their user agreements explicitly allows the reading of emails by individuals.

Get the latest Google stock price here.

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