App developers have been reading your Gmail, and it's alarmingly common

A report from the Wall Street Journal has shed light on the fact that app and software developers can access a users’ Gmail account, with the ability to read emails, and that the practice is a common one across email providers.

The article explains that Gmail users that sign up for certain services – particularly shopping and travel price comparison tools – will have to agree to terms and conditions that allow the content of their emails to be read, both electronically and physically, by the developers of these services.

Ostensibly, Google only allows vetted third-party developers to request such permissions, and the intention of these companies is to use this information for targeted shopping suggestions and advertising, but the concern remains over how closely these companies are monitored once they’ve been granted access.

Common practice

Almost exactly a year ago, Google promised to stop scanning your inbox to serve up ads in Gmail, but as the Journal’s article details, executives of the vetted third-party companies claimed that their employees would read millions of emails and that it was “common practice”.

The companies that had spokespeople quoted in the article claim that all their employees must adhere to strict guidelines when checking user data, and while there are no signs of misuse amongst other developers, the potential is certainly there.

The opt-in notification users receive. Source: Google

The opt-in notification users receive. Source: Google

Although the story specifically mentions the free Gmail service, the same is true of similar services from Microsoft and Oath (formerly Yahoo and AOL), which allow the same degree of access once the user has granted permission.

The timing of this revelation isn’t ideal for the tech giant, with Google likely to undergo a similar degree of scrutiny that Facebook saw earlier in the year with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the user privacy implications that it raised.

Harry Domanski
Harry is an Australian Journalist for TechRadar with an ear to the ground for future tech, and the other in front of a vintage amplifier. He likes stories told in charming ways, and content consumed through massive screens. He also likes to get his hands dirty with the ethics of the tech.