Mys­te­ri­ous Gmail bug sends users into frenzy

In ‘rare but fix­able’ is­sue, pro­mo­tional email flooded main in­boxes

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DREW HAR­WELL More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/ tech­nol­ogy

It was around 4 a.m. Fri­day when Jonathan Keal­ing, blearyeyed from an all-nighter with his 11-month-old daugh­ter, first no­ticed the flood of emails into his in­box: from Groupon, the St. Louis Car­di­nals, a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign, a kids’ store.

These were mes­sages Gmail had for years swept du­ti­fully, qui­etly into his “Pro­mo­tions” tab, where the coupons and other junk goes. Now, they were burst­ing into his main in­box, onto his phone’s lock screen, into his head. And they just kept com­ing.

An in­ad­ver­tent bug had made Gmail’s fil­ters go hay­wire, rerout­ing mes­sages in a way that made users think it had lost its judg­ment over what mes­sages de­served to land on top of the pile — and at the worst pos­si­ble time of the year, when com­pa­nies are bom­bard­ing peo­ple with hol­i­day shop­ping pitches.

A Google spokesman said the com­pany ex­pected the bug to be fixed within the day — but not be­fore ex­pos­ing, ever so slightly, how lit­tle we un­der­stand about the ma­chin­ery that helps us feel like our lives are in control.

Google’s Gmail is now 14 years old, and like most teenagers, it re­mains a mys­tery — a bun­dle of baf­fling al­go­rithms hand-coded to im­pose or­der onto the In­ter­net’s end­less chaos. Gmail’s min­i­mal­ist fa­cade masks au­to­mated soft­ware for search­ing, spam-spot­ting, spell-check­ing, lan­guage trans­la­tion and dozens of other abil­i­ties. Its lat­est, “Smart Com­pose,” au­to­mat­i­cally fills in the next word it thinks you, the hu­man, are go­ing to say.

All of it comes to­gether to power email, which on a scale of ba­sic hu­man util­i­ties ranks not far be­hind elec­tric­ity. So when, in­stead, a tiny er­ror was en­coded into some com­puter file in some server in one of Google’s 15 sprawl­ing data cen­ters, no one could quite un­der­stand what had hap­pened — or even who, or what, to blame.

A small frac­tion of Gmail’s more than 1.4 bil­lion world­wide users took to the In­ter­net with ques­tions: Had some set­ting changed or some shad­owy al­go­rithm con­torted to al­ter what was im­por­tant and what was not? Had the hol­i­day sea­son over­loaded the world’s most pop­u­lar email ser­vice? Or, more sin­is­ter, had the re­tail in­dus­try con­spired to fi­nally fool Google’s junk-mail fil­ters, kneecap­ping the al­go­rithms once and for all?

No, a Google spokesman says. It’s just a bug — very rare but fix­able. Peo­ple first no­ticed it Thurs­day evening, and en­gi­neers on Fri­day were work­ing to re­solve the is­sue some­time that af­ter­noon.

“We are aware of an is­sue in Gmail caus­ing cer­tain pro­mo­tional email to be in­cor­rectly cat­e­go­rized,” a spokesman wrote in an email.

By then, it had al­ready wrig­gled its way into the world’s at­ten­tion spans. “I am in­sanely busy these days and the worst that can hap­pen to me is to be dis­tracted,” wrote a user on the Google fo­rums. “Glad I am not the one that broke it,” wrote an­other user. “Some­body at Google is hav­ing a tough day.”

For Keal­ing, 33, a self-de­scribed com­pul­sive email or­ga­nizer liv­ing in Min­neapo­lis, it ex­posed a vul­ner­a­bil­ity: “When I’m get­ting emails from po­lit­i­cal par­ties and group-deal sites I signed up for 1,000 years ago, it kind of throws off your mojo,” he said.

So he deleted the mes­sages — a con­sumer sur­vey, a get­away pack­age for an all-in­clu­sive Mex­i­can re­sort — and went on with his day. He had a few emails to send.

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