Pinterest's Tool Can Scan Your Emails to Know Your Interests

July 3, 2023
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Pinterest is testing a controversial new method to enhance ad targeting within its app – scanning users' email inboxes to customize their Pinterest experience. According to a recent patent filing, with user authorization, the system would analyze emails connected to a user's Pinterest account to identify topics of interest. Pinterest's AI would then generate custom content, create boards, and surface posts based on these indicated interests. For instance, if a user signs up for a gardening newsletter, Pinterest might populate their boards with gardening tips. However, this move raises significant privacy concerns, especially as data protection regulations like GDPR are in focus.

The system relies on a machine learning model that evaluates emails to identify new interests or update existing ones. It gauges the strength and sentiment of a user's affinity for a topic based on email frequency and relevance to their current Pinterest habits. While gaining user permission and ensuring data security could potentially legitimize the approach, convincing users to permit email scanning might prove challenging.

As data privacy becomes a growing concern for users and regulators, social platforms like WhatsApp have witnessed notable growth due to their reputation as trusted, private spaces. WhatsApp's success highlights the potential backlash Pinterest might face if it proceeds with the email scanning plan. Additionally, email inboxes are often cluttered with various messages, necessitating careful filtering to avoid studying spam or personal and work emails. This poses a considerable challenge for Pinterest's AI in making accurate predictions.

The similarity of this approach to Google's past practice of scanning personal Gmail content for ad targeting adds to the concern. Despite Pinterest CEO Bill Ready's previous experience as a Google executive, Google abandoned this strategy in 2017 due to public criticism. Therefore, it remains to be seen how Pinterest's users will react to the proposed email scanning initiative.

In the ever-evolving landscape of data privacy, Pinterest is exploring various avenues to maximize ad targeting. While this move aligns with the company's goals, it may need to tread carefully and consider alternative methods that do not infringe on user privacy. With mounting pressure on tech companies to prioritize data protection, Pinterest's experimentation with email scanning could face significant scrutiny. As the platform seeks to maintain user trust and capitalize on advertising opportunities, the company must strike a delicate balance between personalization and safeguarding user information.


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