According to a Wall Street Journal report, software developers are able to scan through the emails of millions of users who signed up for email-based services. Google had agreed to stop its computers from scanning Gmail users inbox last year, wanting users to “remain confident that Google will keep privacy and security paramount”. Still, hundreds of outside software developers are able to continue doing so. In some cases, an employee of a software development company is able to access and read through user emails.
Gmail has 1.4 billion users with 2 out of 3 active email users running a Gmail account. Gmail has more users than the 25 other largest email providers does combined, which include Microsoft and Verizon Communications Inc, which was formed after they obtained the Yahoo email servers.
At a time when privacy concerns are the top of the technology news chain, Google and Gmail are in a bad position. In these cases, the software development companies that are reading the user emails were granted access to do so by those users when they signed up for their service. These developers do have to go through a vetting process where Google required that they have an acceptable use agreement.
The two companies at the hands of the current scandal are companies that help users find shopping deals or manage their travels. The apps are Return Path, which is based out of New York City, and Edison Software, which is based out of San Jose, California. Return Path analyzes over two million users’ inboxes and sends the data that they compile about those emails to marketers. Edison Software is similar, but is only used to help organize users’ email inboxes. However, the employees of the company have read hundreds of user emails in order to create a new feature for the company. Neither of the businesses’ privacy policies include mentions of other humans or employees being able to view the private emails of their user base.
A statement on the Return Path blog reads, “As anyone who knows anything about software knows, humans program software – artificial intelligence comes directly from human intelligence… Any time our engineers or data scientists personally review emails in our panel (which again, is completely consistent with our policies), we take great care to limit who has access to the data, supervise all access to the data.”
Similarly, Edison Software defended their policies but agreed to stop the practice. “Our email app was mentioned in the context of our engineers having in the past the ability to read a small random sample of de-identified messages for R&D purposes. This method was used to guide us in developing our Smart Reply functionality which was developed some time ago… We have since stopped this practice and expunged all such data in order to stay consistent with our company’s commitment to achieving the highest standards possible for ensuring privacy,” a statement from CEO Mikael Berner said.