Google to lawmakers: Yep, Gmail data is still open to app developers

Google says third-party developers can access users' Gmail, but it manually vets them first and uses machine learning to monitor apps.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Google has responded to questions from senior Republican senators about how it monitors and controls app developers' access to Gmail content.

The Republican Senate Commerce Committee chairman fired off a letter to Google in July after being alarmed by a report that it is common for employees of third-party app developers to access Gmail content.

The revelation prompted concerns about whether Google is adequately monitoring misuse of Gmail user data to ensure its users aren't exposed in the same way Facebook's lack of developer oversight allowed political consultancy Cambridge Analytica to acquire millions of Facebook users' data through a third-party app developer.

"Though no allegations of misuse of personal email data akin to the Cambridge Analytica case have surfaced, the reported lack of oversight from Google to ensure that Gmail data is properly safeguarded is a cause for concern," they wrote.

The senators asked whether Google was aware of "any instances of an app developer sharing Gmail user data with a third party for any purpose".

Susan Molinari, vice president of Google's America public policy and government affairs, said the company's developer policies allow for this type of sharing.

"Developers may share data with third parties so long as they are transparent with the users about how they are using the data," Molinari wrote.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF)

Molinari said developers must gain consent from the user to access their data and must have a privacy policy if they intend on accessing sensitive data detailing how the app interacts with the data. Developers also need to tell users if the app changes how it uses the data.

The senators wanted more answers about Google's claim that it reviews and enforces each app's compliance with its policies.

Molinari replied that following an approval under Google's manual developer verification process, it uses machine learning to monitor approved apps.

"If we detect significant changes in the behavior of the app after it has been approved, we will once again manually review the app," she wrote.

If an app is found to have violated Google's terms, it will display an 'unverified app' warning on it.

These days, Google displays an 'unverified app' warning for all apps that haven't been verified --- a change it introduce after someone last year tricked millions of Gmail users into granting access to a bogus Google Docs app.

Molinari reiterated Google's comments in a July blogpost that its employees can read Gmail users' email content but that it restricts access to cases where a user has given consent, or when it needs to inspect content to investigate a bug or abuse.

She also said Google restricts this type of access to a "very limited number of individuals", requires documentation of when access is granted, and routinely audits access.

A Senate Commerce hearing next Wednesday is expected to be attended by privacy officials from Google, Apple, Twitter, AT&T and Charter Communications.

Previous and related coverage

Who's reading your Gmail? Not us, says Google, and we vet 3rd-party apps that do

Google says it doesn't get paid for giving third-party apps access to Gmail and checks them thoroughly.

Gmail now lets you send self-destructing 'confidential mode' emails from your phone

Gmail's not entirely confidential 'confidential mode' expiry-date email feature is now available on mobile apps.

Google pledges to foil phishing attacks with new Titan Security Key

If you trust Google, this is the second-factor security key for you.

Gmail Confidential Mode misleading users with security claims, EFF says TechRepublic

Even though users can set an expiration date for emails, the EFF said that Google can still access the message data.

10 percent of all Gmails are written by Google robots CNET

The Smart Reply feature is apparently catching on.

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