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Gmail users get new controls for data used to personalize Google’s ‘smart’ features

Google is introducing new controls for data it uses to personalize various “smart” features across its suite of products. This means Gmail users will soon be able to access a setting that stipulates whether their Gmail, Chat, or Meet data can be leveraged for Google’s automated Smart Reply or Smart Compose, for example, or whether bill payment reminders gleaned from email data can be issued through Google Assistant.

The launch comes as Google and other internet giants face increasing scrutiny over their data privacy practices, ushering in new regulations designed to protect consumers’ online privacy.

Smart data

Google has introduced myriad “smart” features that apply AI and machine learning techniques to user data to enhance its services. For example, Gmail users are likely familiar with Smart Compose, which is basically auto-complete for emails — it can use historical grammar and typing habits to make word and sentence suggestions in real time.

Smart Compose

Above: Smart Compose

Amid concerns over the way Big Tech companies manipulate user data for their own purposes, Google has offered a few data privacy controls over the years, including dedicated security dashboards and privacy checkup tools that allow users to manage and deactivate such features as location history, web and app activity, and YouTube viewing history. Earlier this year, Google also activated a new auto-delete feature by default for some users.

In Gmail, users can already delve into their account settings and stipulate not only whether Smart Compose is activated, but whether it’s personalized to their writing style.

Above: Gmail: Smart Compose settings

But even if users know these features exist, it’s easy to lose track of which settings are on and off.

Rolling out “in the coming weeks,” Google’s new setting aims to add centralized controls for Gmail data used to power its various smart features. Users who visit their account settings will now see an option asking whether they want to activate or deactivate smart features in Gmail, Chat, or Meet.

Above: New privacy settings are coming to Gmail

A second screen asks the user whether they also want to allow their Gmail, Chat, and Meet data to be used to personalize other Google services, such as Google Assistant, Google Maps, and Google Travel.

Along with features like bill reminders in Google Assistant, this will impact things like whether Google can create automated travel itineraries from trip bookings it detects in users’ Gmail messages.

Above: New privacy settings are coming to Gmail

Data play

Numerous data privacy laws have taken effect in the past few years, including GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in California. Companies like Google have had to change how they operate or face the wrath of legislators. Indeed, Google is currently facing complaints on numerous fronts, including an accusation by browser rival Brave that Google is breaching European data protection law by sharing data between its services without proper consent.

Closer to home, Google is facing a $5 billion class action lawsuit in California that alleges the internet giant essentially ignores users’ privacy wishes. And in the U.K., Google is facing another lawsuit over how YouTube uses kids’ data to target advertising.

Put simply, Google is fighting fires on many fronts.

The company said its new setting is less about adding privacy functionality than it is about giving users a “clearer choice over the data processing” that makes its smart features possible. Google said the feature was designed based on learnings from “user experience research and regulators’ emphasis on comprehensible, actionable user choices over data.”


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