Gmail Pri­va­cy Up­grades to Dis­rupt Apps

L'Opinion - - The Wall Street & I'Opinion - Dou­glas MacMillan

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.

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