Pinterest is experimenting with a new process, which it hopes could offer a solution for improved ad targeting in the app: scanning your email inbox to customize your Pinterest experience.

According to Patent Drop, which tracks registered patents, Pinterest recently filed an overview of the new process, which would essentially scrape your inbox to glean more insight into what you might want to see.

As per Patent Drop:

The system would, with user authorization, go through an email [account] that a user has connected to their Pinterest account to identify topics that they may be interested in. Based on the model’s findings, Pinterest will then serve you custom content, auto-generating boards and surfacing posts based on your indicated interests. For example, if you sign up for a newsletter about gardening, Pinterest’s AI may fill your boards with gardening tips and inspiration. If it stumbles on an email about travel bookings to Costa Rica, it may put outfit ideas or restaurant recommendations on your feed.”

Which seems fraught with privacy concerns at a time when privacy is a key focus for many regulators.

This system relies on a machine learning model that essentially makes your emails the dataset it learns from: It evaluates emails to identify new topics of interest, update existing topics, or ‘simply record the information as user data as the basis of making further enhancements or revisions to the user’s preferences’. The system may decide the ‘strength and sentiment’ of a user’s affinity for a topic based on how often it comes up in their inbox and how it relates to the user’s current Pinterest habits.”

Yeah, I’m not sure that this is going to pass the GDPR test – but conceptually, if you were to gain user permission, and ensure that their personal info was not misused after being accessed, it could be another way to better understand user preferences, then show them related content according to their interests.

Though I can’t see many people giving Pinterest the go-ahead to scan their private messages.

Because it’s not only regulators that are increasingly concerned about data privacy, but users as well, with WhatsApp, for example, seeing significant growth, particularly in North America, as people pull back from public sharing of content, and retreat to more enclosed, private messaging spaces.

WhatsApp’s gaining ground because it’s a trusted platform, where users know that they can share whatever they like, without fear of it being used against them. And in this context, I can’t see how Pinterest would be able to sell a significant number of users on letting its system take a look at their emails for such purpose.

And it might not be overly effective either way, as Patent Drop further notes:

Email inboxes aren’t always as clean cut as this patent lays out. Pinterest has to make sure its tech doesn’t study spam, work and personal emails as it makes its predictions, especially since machine learning models are only as good as the data they’re trained on.”

Yeah, I’m not sure this is the way – and interestingly, it’s also worth noting that Google halted its scanning of personal Gmail content for ad targeting in 2017, after significant criticism of this approach.  

That’s particularly relevant in this case, because Pinterest CEO Bill Ready is a former Google exec, so you would assume that he’d be well aware of the negative response this approach received even back then.

And it would likely be even less welcomed in the current data protection climate.

Either way, it seems that Pinterest will at least try to see if it can make this approach work, as it seeks new ways to maximize ad targeting amid evolving data privacy shifts.