Yahoo's Interested In You: Email Scanning Draws New Fire

Oath’s practice of scanning emails to feed advertising received new attention on Tuesday with the publication of a story in The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal reports that Yahoo is now “actively pitching advertisers on its ability to plumb Yahoo Mail inboxes for valuable information,” despite the fact that Silicon Valley largely frowns on this activity.

This is all marketers need as Google and the other social giants come under fresh scrutiny in light of GDPR — and national politics.    

Oath, the umbrella brand of AOL and Yahoo Mail, informed users earlier this year that it is scanning their emails for use in targeted advertising. The practice had already been in place, and was included in the Yahoo privacy policy, but was extended to AOL email users.

What’s the point of the exercise?

 “The scans have become one of Oath's most effective methods for improving targeting, company VP Doug Sharp says, but adds that it applies only to commercial emails (those from retailers, or mass mailing) and that users can opt out,” the Journal writes.

The story adds that neither Google or Microsoft scan messages for ad purposes. But Google doesn’t exactly deserve a halo 

A study of Google’s data activities by a team at Vanderbilt University reports that since Gmail “acts as a central mail repository for many people, it can determine their interests by scanning email content, identifying merchant addresses through their promotional emails or sales receipts sent to emails, and learn about a user’s plans (e.g. dinner reservations, doctor’s appointments,).”

It notes that in 2017, “Google announced it would discontinue the practice of Gmail message-based personalization of ads. Recently, however, Google clarified that it is still scanning Gmail messages for some purposes.”

These apparently include the integration of apps from other developers with Gmail. That development drew quite a bit of heat when reported by the Journal in July.

The Vanderbilt study continues that,” from its inception in 2004 until at least late 2017, Google may have scanned the contents of Gmail emails to improve ad targeting and search results, as well as filter spam. In the summer of 2016, Google went a step further and changed its privacy policy to enable it to combine formerly anonymous web-browsing data.”

Google got the message — especially after the filing of class-action lawsuits over the practice. But it probably will not get a free pass for any lapses going forward, given the overall breadth of its information-gathering.

“Google learns a great deal about a user’s personal interests during even a single day of typical internet usage,” the Vanderbilt researchers write. “In an example ‘day in the life’ scenario, where a real user with a new Google account and an Android phone (with new SIM card) goes through her daily routine, Google collected data at numerous activity touchpoints, such as user location, routes taken, items purchased, and music listened to.”

Yeah, we know: How can consumers complain about Oath when they’re getting a free email service? Tell it to the EU.

At least Google had the sense to back off on the email scanning. Microsoft was smart enough never to do it. And Oath? Some observers feel that Verizon should never have acquired Yahoo. This proves it once again.  

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