(Credit: Google/Alphabet)

If you have an app on your phone or tablet that's ever asked for permission to access your Google account, your Gmail messages may be getting read by strangers, according to a report today by the Wall Street Journal.

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The report identifies Return Path and eDataSource as the main purveyors of analysis tools for email newsletter performance, and the Journal says that Return Path employees personally examined the contents of 8,000 email messages to help perfect their service.

According to the report, Return Path does not explicitly notify users that their emails may be getting read by strangers. Instead, the company characterizes the user agreement as a sufficient communication about your privacy -- the part of the app installation where you give an app or service access to your Google account.

The Journal cites Edison Assistant as one example. This app can monitor your Gmail, Yahoo, or Microsoft email account for things like upcoming bills, package deliveries, important-looking messages, and boarding passes for upcoming trips. Mikael Berner, CEO of Edison, told the Journal that his employees analyzed the emails of "hundreds of users" to develop a recent update.

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In order for the assistant app to work, it must be able to read the contents of all of your email messages and feed them into algorithms. Algorithms allow the automation of a potentially complex chain of actions, like detecting those emails from Amazon about an upcoming delivery and then putting them in front of the user in a streamlined presentation.

In theory, such apps help users filter out spam -- but for those algorithms to work properly, part of the testing process pretty much requires people to verify accuracy by reading your email.

Email assistant apps can often be replaced with built-in tools

The kicker is that such apps are not needed as much, because the Google Assistant app has been increasingly capable of filling in the aforementioned function gaps, and Gmail itself has a number of helpful message filtering tools.

For example, if you ask the Google Assistant, "Where's my package?" it will list the most recent package deliveries for which you've received a Gmail message, and you can tap each one to view a summary or to view the full message in the Gmail app.

Gmail itself can also be organized to automatically separate promotional mail, social network messages, personal messages, and general updates into different containers, all without touching a third-party app or service.

To have Gmail help sort your messages, when looking at Gmail in a desktop browser, just click the gear icon in the upper right, select Configure Inbox, and check the boxes next to the categories that you want Gmail to start separating your messages into. Click the Save button for these changes to take effect, and you will now have separate tabs for each of these categories. This reorganization will also be reflected in the iOS and Android apps.

Lastly, you can configure the Google app to send you air travel notifications derived from your Gmail inbox and interactions with the company's other apps. Just open the Google app, click on the gear icon in the upper left, and tap on Notifications, where you can toggle flight updates near the bottom.

The takeaways

  1. When an app asks for permission to access your Google account, you may be giving its developers the ability to personally read your email -- and the description of this permission request may not make that clear.
  2. Apps that automate some Gmail sorting tasks may not be necessary for you, if you apply some tweaks to your inbox and leverage the Google Assistant and Google app to dig up data for you.

Also see

Tom is the senior editor covering Windows at Download.com.