Gmail Privacy Upgrades to Disrupt Apps
Google’s plan to lower the risk of another privacy gaffe is likely to disrupt business for scores of app developers that build services using the wealth of data generated by the world’s most popular email service.
The Alphabet Inc. unit this week said it is reining in the data it makes available to outside developers of Gmail apps as part of a broader effort to secure the privacy of its users. Apps that don’t fall into categories of either email or productivity services will be cut off from all Gmail data, and other developers will be restricted from selling data they collect or using it to target advertising or market research, Google said in a blog post Monday.
The rule changes, which take effect Jan. 9, threaten to choke off the main source of revenue for a cluster of companies in the email data business.
Hundreds of outside software developers scan the inboxes of millions of Gmail users who have signed up for email-based services in areas like finance, travel, and scheduling – and often collect information about these users’ buying habits and sell it to marketers, The Wall Street Journal found in an examination published in July. Google’s shift illustrates the tradeoffs tech giants face as they try to maintain an ecosystem of apps offering potentially attractive services and to ensure ironclad data protections for users. Locking down user data may help prevent a data breach, but it may also squelch innovation by emerging startups, said Kevin Bankston, a lawyer and director of the Open Technology Institute at the Washington, D.C., nonprofit New America.
“My concern is that there is going to be an overcorrection, where we end up making it harder for users to leverage their data that is stored with the big platforms,” Mr. Bankston said.
Google said it would phase in the Gmail changes over three months to give developers time to adjust. The company announced the change along with plans to terminate the consumer functionality of Google+ after the Journal reported that Google discovered – and decided not to publicize – a security flaw in the social network earlier this year that gave outside app developers the ability to access unauthorized user profile data. Google said it found no evidence of misuse.
Popular email apps include travel planners, shopping-receipt trackers and contact organizers. As of July, more than 160 apps were feeding inbox data to Return Path Inc., a company highlighted in the Journal’s article that month that uses the data to provide marketers a dashboard where they can see which of their emailmarketing messages reached the most customers.
That activity appears to be expressly prohibited under Google’s new rules, which state that Gmail apps “must use the data to provide user-facing features and may not transfer or sell the data for other purposes such as targeting ads, market research, email campaign tracking, and other unrelated purposes.”
A Google spokesman declined to comment on which developers will be affected but said the company will only allow apps that provide a user benefit. Matt Blumberg, chief executive of Return Path, declined to comment on whether Gmail’s rules would have an impact on its business.
Google said app developers must bar human employees from reading any raw user data unless they are given express permission, need to comply with the law or need to investigate security problems. Having humans read a small number of users’ emails to improve algorithms has been described as a common practice by executives in this field, according to the Journal’s July examination.
Even app makers who meet Google’s criteria will face new requirements, including a mandatory security assessment that will cost each developer $15,000 to $75,000, Google said in its blog. That fee will be paid directly to an outside assessment company picked by Google. All apps also must submit to be reviewed by Google to ensure they are complying with the new policies. Google is trying to encourage developers to build smaller, simpler versions of their apps, called “add-ons,” which can be opened inside the Gmail window for composing new messages. Add-ons give developers access to data only during the time a user has them open on the screen.
Users of email apps may notice at least one change to the way they give permission to access data: Instead of “bundling” permissions into one screen, where users agree to let an app control their calendar, email, docs and other data with the press of one button, developers will have to ask for permission to access these types of data individually.
That change may be subtle to users, but to developers it could mean that a lower percentage of people make it through the setup and actually become users of an app, said Aleem Mawani, co-founder of Streak, a tool for managing sales leads inside the inbox.
“Users may drop off,” Mr. Mawani said. “You can argue that those users didn’t really read the prompt when it was just one. But now that there are multiple prompts, they may actually pay attention.”
Despite the new burden of complying with Google’s rules, Mr. Mawani said changes like these are good for his business because they may help restore user trust in tech products.
Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai spoke about Gmail features at the Google I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif., on May 8.