Congress Wants Answers From Google On Gmail Scanning

The uproar over Google’s allowing third-party app developers to scan Gmails has drawn Congressional attention. 

In a letter sent yesterday to Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Congress demanded answers about that practice — and other privacy-related issues — and set a deadline of July 23. The letter was sent by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. 

Among other things, the committee wants a list of all companies that have access to Gmail, and their consent practices. 

It also wants information on the ability of app developers to collect data from users’ Android devices, and it asks: “What info does Google provide to outside software developers, or allow outside software developers to access, regarding or relating to Gmail users?” 

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In a separate letter, the committee is demanding answers from Apple CEO Tim Cook about that company’s privacy practices. 

In its letter to Page, the committee writes that in 2017, “Google announced changes to Gmail that would halt scanning the contents of a user’s email to personalize advertisements to ‘keep privacy and security paramount.’” 

In continues: “Last week, reports surfaced that in spite of this policy change, Google still permitted third parties to access the contents of users’ emails, including message text, email signatures, and receipt data, to personalize content. In the context of free service provided by third parties, these practices raise questions about how representations made by a platform are carried out in practice.”

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that third-party app developers had access to Gmail contents. Google acknowledged that it allows apps from developers to integrate with Gmail, but has specified that the goal is to facilitate email clients, trip planners and CRM systems. The company also said that it vets app developers, requiring that they accurately represent themselves and only request relevant data.

However, the committee made these demands:   

“Please provide a comprehensive list of the companies with access to a user’s email contents on Gmail. Please specify which companies obtain consent through their terms of service and those, if any, that do not obtain consent.

"Please describe the process for reviewing and approving third party access to user’s email contents on Gmail?

"What restrictions, if any, does Google place on how data from Gmail users may be used?

"What additional steps, if any, are taken by Google to verify that the activities of companies granted access to user’s email contents meets Google’s terms of service?” 

The letter was signed by:

Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), committee chairman

Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), chairman on the subcommittee on oversight and investigation 

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), chairman subcommittee on communications and technology 

Robert E. Latta (R-OH), chairman subcommittee on digital commerce an consumer protection

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