Outside Software Engineers Scan Millions of Gmail Users’ Inboxes

July 3, 2018 Last Updated: July 6, 2018

Google let hundreds of outside software developers scan the inboxes of millions of Gmail users who signed up for email-based services, according to a report by Wall Street Journal on July 2.


The technology giant promised last June that it would stop scanning Gmail messages to sell targeted ads. However, if Gmail users signed up for tools such as price comparisons or travel-itinerary planners, their related email content was exposed to third parties.

At least two companies were named specifically in the report: Return Path and Edison Software. The developers targeted the emails of people who had signed up for one of their free apps.

The first company analyzes data for marketing purposes, and at one point employees read about 8,000 user emails two years ago. The second is a company that helps users manage their emails, and its employees personally read a large quantity of emails to come up with a new feature. Of course, there are more undisclosed businesses involved.

In the software developer industry, it’s common for computers to look through emails, but people may be surprised to find out that there are human eyes involved.

In addition, most people don’t spend much time reading the fine prints when they sign up for a new feature or new app. The consent form Gmail users signed did not explicitly say who might be reading their emails, either.

Google indicates that only strictly vetted outside developers have access to the data. Meanwhile, Edison said its practice has been stopped. Return Path sent a response to WSJ on its blog.

“Consumers are coming to understand and appreciate that the real cost of a “free” internet lies in advertising and data collection,” Return Path wrote. “We take great care to limit who has access to the data, supervise all access to the data, deploying a Virtual Safety Room, where data cannot leave this VSR and all data is destroyed after the work is completed.”


Gmail is the most popular email service in the world, with 1.4 billion users. It has been criticized several times in regards to its privacy policy since it launched in 2004.

On June 28, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a strict privacy act law requiring companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon to disclose type of data they collect, why the data was collected and what categories of data third party could receive. Consumers can also opt out of having their data sold or ask these businesses to delete their information.

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