Keeping It Quiet

July 9, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Data Security

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published a disturbing article on the kind of access that many app developers are able to gain to Gmail accounts, which now number over one billion.  Writing for the Journal, Douglas MacMillan opens his nearly 2,300-word article:

Google said a year ago it would stop its computers from scanning the inboxes of Gmail users for information to personalize advertisements, saying it wanted users to “remain confident that Google will keep privacy and security paramount.”

But the internet giant continues to let hundreds of outside software developers scan the inboxes of millions of Gmail users who signed up for email-based services offering shopping price comparisons, automated travel-itinerary planners or other tools.  Google does little to police those developers, who train their computers – and, in some cases, employees – to read their users’ emails, a Wall Street Journal examination has found.

One of those companies is Return Path Inc., which collects data for marketers by scanning the inboxes of more than two million people who have signed up for one of the free apps in Return Path’s partner network using a Gmail, Microsoft Corp. or Yahoo email address.  Computers normally do the scanning, analyzing about 100 million emails a day.  At one point about two years ago, Return Path employees read about 8,000 unredacted emails to help train the company’s software, people familiar with the episode say …

Letting employees read user emails has become “common practice” for companies that collect this type of data, says Thede Loder, the former chief technology officer at eDataSource Inc., a rival to Return Path.  He says engineers at eDataSource occasionally reviewed emails when building and improving software algorithms.

“Some people might consider that to be a dirty secret,” says Mr. Loder.  “It’s kind of reality.”

This report serves as yet another reminder that the data and conversations one sends and stores on email might be personal, but they are probably not private.  Understanding you is too critical to too many companies who want to market to you.  So these companies, when you download one of their apps, ask you to check a box at the bottom of some long end-user agreement that almost no one reads that gives them permission to sneak-a-peak into your inbox.

This story can serve as a great reminder of the importance – and, really, the sanctity – of keeping a confidence.  Some information, no matter what a legal end-user agreement may allow, is not best morally bought, sold, and shared.  As Proverbs 11:13 pithily puts it: “A gossip goes around revealing a secret, but a trustworthy person keeps a confidence.”

Confidences in our culture are far too easily betrayed.  From a person’s presumably private information being shared and sold by large tech companies under a cloud of legalese to the steady drip of politically laced leaks meant to damage people in public positions to the titillating headlines about this or that celebrity splashed across the front pages of our tabloids to the more modest office gossip that happens around water coolers across America, not only are we bad at keeping confidences, we often delight in breaking confidences if we think doing so will gain us friends and get us power. Unlike Christ, who sacrificed Himself for the sake of others, we, with giddily gossipy tongues, sacrifice others for the sake of ourselves.

Certainly, confidences can never be turned into excuses for cover-ups of sin.  Morally illicit behavior, when it comes to one’s attention, needs to be confronted frankly, even if also compassionately, by someone in a position of authority to do so, which means that sometimes, something that comes to your attention needs to be shared with someone who is equipped to address it.  But it can still be shared in strict confidence for a specific purpose – not to get the word out, but to privately and poignantly call someone to repentance.

At its heart, keeping a confidence is simply a vow to treat people’s tender spots tenderly.  We all have points of pain and shame in our lives.  To be able to share those with a person we can trust is often necessary for healing.  In a culture that delights in the damaging and devastating weaponry of gossip, may we practice the restorative and healing power of keeping a confidence.  As my mother used to say: “Sometimes, you’ve just got to zip your lips.”

This is most certainly true.

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