Google has unveiled a new feature that will let users communicate via email more easily between their Gmail and Google+ accounts, but some critics say that the changes could be an invasion of privacy.
The changes, which will allow Gmail and Google+ users to send an email to another user even when they don’t have that user’s actual email address, was announced by David Nachum, a Gmail product manager, in a Jan. 9 post on the Official Gmail Blog.
“Have you ever started typing an email to someone only to realize halfway through the draft that you haven’t actually exchanged email addresses?” wrote Nachum. “If you are nodding your head ‘yes’ and already have a Google+ profile, then you’re in luck, because now it’s easier for people using Gmail and Google+ to connect over email. As an extension of some earlier improvements that keep Gmail contacts automatically up to date using Google+, Gmail will suggest your Google+ connections as recipients when you are composing a new email.”
That means that as a sender begins typing the name of a desired contact into the “To” box, a list of contacts starting with the first letter of the name will appear and allow the user to send them a message, according to the post. The sender’s email address is only shared with the targeted recipient and the recipient’s email address is only shared if he or she agrees to receive the message, the post states.
Gmail users will now find a new tool in their account “Settings” folder that allows them to designate just whom they are willing to share these opportunities with, wrote Nachum. Users can choose to allow anyone to send them such requests for email connections, or only allow people who are in their Google+ Circles or Extended Circles. Users can also choose to not allow anyone to connect with them through the new feature.
Incoming emails from known Circle members will arrive in a recipient’s inbox, while messages from senders who are not in a recipient’s Circles will be delivered to the user’s Social inbox, wrote Nachum.
The new feature is rolling out over the next few days to everyone who uses Gmail and Google+, according to the company. Account holders will receive emails with information and a link to the setting when the feature is available.
Google developed the new feature as a way to allow people who might know each other to communicate via email even in cases where they don’t have each other’s email addresses, while giving users control over who may contact them.
Senders will only be allowed to send an initial email one time to a recipient and will not be able to send further messages if their initial request is not approved and reciprocated by the recipient, according to Google. At no time will the email address of the recipient be revealed if he or she does not accept the request, Google says. The goal of the feature is to allow users to interact with each other while maintaining the privacy of email addresses.
One critic of the new feature, however, Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told eWEEK in a Jan. 10 email that he’s not so sure that it doesn’t violate the terms of a previous Google privacy agreement that was reached with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) back in 2011.
Google Making It Easier to Connect via Email Between Gmail, Google+
In that case, the FTC charged that Google used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers with its then-fledgling Google Buzz social application. As part of that settlement, Google agreed to adopt a privacy program as well as submit to an independent privacy audit every other year for 20 years. Under the deal, Google also must get users’ consent before sharing their information with third parties if Google changes privacy promises it made after collecting users’ information.
The questions raised by the new Gmail and Google+ email feature are “a clear echo of the Google buzz snafu that led to the FTC investigation and consent order,” wrote Rotenberg.
Google launched Buzz on Feb. 9, 2010, according to a previous eWEEK report. The application lets users post status updates and share Picasa photos, YouTube videos, links and other content right in Gmail. Buzz was the company’s first serious attempt at challenging Facebook and Twitter. However, Buzz engineers failed to properly account for users’ privacy requirements. The application leveraged users’ Gmail contacts to quickly scale large social networks of Buzz contacts. Users’ Gmail friends were publicly exposed, sparking outrage from thousands of users. Google made Buzz auto-suggest instead of auto-follow. Still, class-action suits claiming Google violated users’ privacy were filed. Google settled one for $8.5 million in November 2010.
The new email feature is different from the concerns about Buzz, according to Google, because the Buzz application could accidentally leak the contact information of users. Under the Gmail and Google+ email scenarios, no information about users is shared unless the recipient takes action and replies, according to Google.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by eWEEK.
The FTC did not reply to an eWEEK request for comment.
Google+, the successor to Google Buzz, was launched in June 2011.
Dan Maycock, an IT analyst with OneAccord Digital, said he “can see where Google is coming from” by introducing a new way for users to connect when they don’t have each other’s email addresses. “It’s a nice feature to have.”
The problem, though, is that users have to restrict their account settings manually if they don’t want to receive such requests, he said.
“The thing that I think that they may want to go back and change is the automatic opt-in, versus having users opted-out” to start, said Maycock. “Some people just don’t want to be contacted, and I think there’s also the potential for abuse from spammers and a lot of other people.”