Google defends Gmail data sharing, gives few details on violations

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A Google sign is seen during the WAIC (World Artificial Intelligence Conference) in Shanghai, China. — Reuters

WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO — Alphabet Inc's Google gave details about its policies for third-party Gmail add-ons but stopped short of fully addressing questions from US senators about developers who break its email-scanning rules.

How user data flows between big technology platforms such as Google and Facebook Inc and their partners has faced scrutiny around the world this year since Facebook revealed it had done little to monitor such relationships.

Google said in a letter to US senators made public on Thursday that it relies on automated scans and reports from security researchers to monitor add-ons after launch, but did not respond to lawmakers' request to say how many have been caught violating the company's policies.

Senators may seek further clarity on Gmail's operations at a Commerce Committee hearing about privacy practices scheduled for Sept. 26 with officials from Google, Apple Inc, AT&T Inc and Twitter Inc. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gmail users must give their consent to activate extensions, which can help them send emails on a time delay, get price-match rebates from retailers and remove unwanted mailing lists.

Under Google's policies, software firms that create these add-ons must inform users about how they collect and share Gmail data.

The lawmakers' inquiry came after the Wall Street Journal reported in July that some add-on makers did not make clear to users that their employees could review Gmail messages and that their data could be shared with additional parties.

Software experts told Reuters in March that auditing of apps that interact with Gmail, Facebook and other services is lax.

To be sure, sharing with a fourth party is essential to the functioning of some add-ons. For instance, a trip-planning app may scan a users' email for upcoming flight details and then use the data to query an airline for updated departure information.

Google told senators it has suspended apps due to "a lack of transparency to users," without identifying violators or when enforcement actions took place.

Gmail, used by 1.4 billion people, is not the only Google service drawing lawmaker questions about oversight.

House lawmakers asked Google in a separate letter in July whether smartphones with its voice assistant tool can or do collect so-called "non-triggered" audio in order to recognize phrases like "Okay Google" that activate voice controls.

The lawmakers cited media reports and said there had been suggestions that third-party applications have access to and use this non-triggered data without disclosure to users.

In another report, it was said that Google employees brainstormed ways to alter search functions to counter the Trump administration's controversial 2017 travel ban, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday, citing internal emails.

Google employees discussed how they could tweak the company's search-related functions to show users how to contribute to pro-immigration organizations and contact lawmakers and government agencies, the WSJ said. The ideas were not implemented.

President Donald Trump's travel ban temporarily barred visitors and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries. It spurred public outcry and was revised several times. Trump said the travel ban was needed to protect the United States against attacks by Islamist militants, and the Supreme Court upheld the measure in June.

The Google employees proposed ways to "leverage" search functions and take steps to counter what they considered to be "islamophobic, algorithmically biased results from search terms 'Islam', 'Muslim', 'Iran', etc." and "prejudiced, algorithmically biased search results from search terms 'Mexico', 'Hispanic', 'Latino', etc," the Journal added, quoting from the emails.

A Google spokesperson said the emails represented brainstorming and none of the ideas were implemented. She said the company does not manipulate search results or modify products to promote political views.

"Our processes and policies would not have allowed for any manipulation of search results to promote political ideologies," the spokesperson said in a statement. — Reuters


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