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Google Will Keep Reading Your Emails, Just Not for Ads

No, Google won’t stop reading your emails. And you may not actually want it to.

The search giant introduced a significant change to the way it treats its users’ emails Friday, announcing that it will stop scanning the emails of Gmail users to personalize advertising later this year.

With that step, Google is getting rid of one of its most controversial advertising features. Ever since Google first introduced its free Gmail email service some 13 years ago, it has been analyzing the text of emails to personalize advertising displayed both within Gmail and elsewhere. Privacy advocates and concerned users alike have long criticized this as a far-reaching intrusion, but most other free email services have been doing the same — or at least reserved the rights to do so — for years.

On Friday, Google announced that it would stop personalizing advertising based on emails in part to more closely align its free Gmail service with the paid email service it is offering to companies through its G Suite service, which was formerly known as Google Apps.

Google Cloud SVP Diane Greene said in a blog post that more than 3 million companies pay to use Google as their email provider. Google has never used these corporate accounts for ad personalization. By phasing out the practice for free Gmail accounts, Google is likely looking to ease any remaining concerns from prospective G Suite customers.

Does this mean that Google will stop looking at your email? Not exactly. The company has also long been scanning Gmail accounts for other reasons, and in fact increased product personalization based on the emails you get over the years.

The Google app on your phone, for example, knows when your next flight is leaving, and whether or not it has been delayed, based on emails you get from airlines and travel booking sites. Similarly, Google Calendar has begun to automatically add restaurant reservations and similar events to your schedule based on the emails you are getting. Google also has for some time automatically scanned emails for links to potentially fraudulent sites, as well as to filter out spam.

All of this leads to an important question: Is this kind of automated scanning actually the same as someone reading your email? The answer to that may be more complicated than it sounds. Computers looking for certain keywords clearly aren’t the same as humans manually reading each and every email.

However, as artificial intelligence (AI) advances, computers get a lot smarter and can better make sense of the emails in your inbox. Google has been investing heavily in AI, and one of the areas where it is using these new types of technologies is email.

Case in point: The company recently introduced a new feature dubbed Smart Reply for Gmail’s mobile apps. Smart Reply uses neural networks — computer algorithms designed to process information similarly to the human brain — to figure out the main intent of an email, and then suggest short and adequate responses. It’s an incredibly useful feature, it works surprisingly well — and it clearly requires for Google’s computers to “read” your email.

In the end, consumers need to decide whether they want to trade privacy for convenience and give Google access to their data to power these kinds of features — and removing something like ad personalization from the equation may actually help Google to get more buy-in from consumers.

Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

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