Friday, July 24, 2015 at 11:33 AM

Quick followup re GMail problem

On Wednesday I wrote about a problem I've been seeing with GMail, or so I thought. Messages that I knew I must be getting were not showing up in any of my mailboxes in GMail. But when I searched for them, they would show up.

I heard from other people who had seen the same behavior.

And I heard from two people from Google who work on GMail, who asked all the right questions. And gave me really detailed instructions on how to help them debug this.

What they turned up is that the message I gave them the ID of had been classified as spam by Apple software running on one of my machines. I thought this couldn't be, I never use the Apple mail client. I only access my email from the web interface.

But then I realized that's not true. I've given Apple all the info it needs to log onto my mail account from all of my iOS devices. Yet the Google people say the connection came from a Mac. They see it in their logs (which is amazing given how much email they must process).

Anyway, I accept what they say and wanted to pass it on. Our email systems are more complex than we realize. They were certainly more complex than I was thinking.

At this point the problem isn't solved, but I'm not sure what to look at next. Thinking about it.

But wait, there's more!

I got a fairly detailed howto from one of the Google guys, Brad Town.

He says: If you haven't given any Macs access to your Gmail account, then I think one of the following is true:

  1. You've given access to a Mac but didn't realize that it'd also access Gmail. (For example, if you linked Gmail's Calendar or Contacts in OS X, it may also enable Gmail access.)

  2. Our identification of the issue (OS and client version, etc.) is wrong.

  3. Someone else is accessing your account.

And then goes on to recommend, in great (useful!) detail how to proceed.

The best advice he offered is to assume #3 is true, and proceed from there. I don't actually think it's true, but it seems to have had good results.

What I did

I went through Google's suggested security process. They showed me a list of machines that had been either accessing my account, or had tried to, but were deemed not secure enough by Google, and denied. I had seen reports of the denials before. They usually happen when I'm watching Jeopardy, or Law & Order, my two prime goof-off shows. The requests come from my IP address, so I don't think it's a hacker trying to get in, it's got to be one of my menagerie of computers.

I changed my password

Then I sucked in my breath, and

  1. Changed my password.

  2. Deleted all the access to services and machines that weren't from Google. That meant telling LinkedIn they couldn't check my contacts (why had I ever given them permission to do that, weird) and shutting off my two iPads and my iPhone. Apple was no longer a possible source of the missing messages.

One quick result is that things quieted down around here. When a mail message would come in, each of my devices would take turns singing, including my Apple Watch which informed me haptically and audibly of the new message. It's nice that this change got them to STFU. And I still have an Android device for portable access to my Google accounts.

Then I sat down at the desktop machine, a big screen iMac, and don't you know, there's a notice in the upper right corner from Apple about my password, here have a look.

Well well well, that's a smoking gun. The Mac OS wants to know why it can't read my email. And I thought no way any of my Macs were getting access to my mail. Clearly they had access, and they want it back.

Now I'm going to click on the Continue button and see where it takes me.

To System Preferences, Internet Accounts, Google.

I have no recollection of ever telling my Mac about this account, nor did I have or any reason to. I don't use their desktop apps for these functions. I'm strictly a web guy. My guess is that when I set up my iPhone to access the account, it shared the information with my Mac without telling me. And further, the Mac has a spam filter (this is just a theory) and this is where the mail deletions were happening.

Caught in the act

I actually saw an email get deleted this afternoon. It was an offer to let me test a product. The message showed up in the Notifications on both my iPhone and Android phone. When I picked up one of them, I literally saw the notification disappear. When I went to the mail app on the Android phone, the message was not there. Nor was it in the GMail web interface.

I searched for it in GMail, as I did with the earlier lost message, and it was there.

This happened before I changed my password. Hasn't happened since.

BTW, this message was borderline spam. GMail didn't think it was. I often get messages like this, and I don't complain. I like to know what free hardware I can have. I almost never ask for a test unit though.

Visions of the TSR wars

This whole thing is freaking me out. I thought my Mac was sacred space, not touched by all the control freakery of the iPhone. But I shouldn't have been so naive. Apple has been pushing their cloud services on the Mac for a long time, and I think I relented last time I set up a Mac, or maybe the defaults were different, or the messages better phrased to make me go ahead and try it. They were never very clear about what these services do. I bet this is one of the things they did.

Could it possibly be that Apple doesn't like the fact that I use GMail? Could this be marketing? A feature, not a bug? How did I get sucked into this! I'm a web mail user, very deliberately. I wanted to stay out of this mess.

You're almost certainly too young to remember the TSR Wars of 1986 and 1987. I was a participant. Our competitor would see that we had installed interrupt handlers to catch our magic key, and they would de-install them, basically killing our app. So we had to learn to watch for this, and put ourselves back. This mail situation feels a bit like that. We absolutely need to control email. It shouldn't be up for grabs. This is not user generated content. And by the way -- I pay for my Mac hardware. This is not a case where if you don't pay for it you are the product. I pay.

PS: I tried looking up TSR Wars on Google. They're convinced I meant Star Wars.

PPS: TSR is an acronym for Terminate and Stay Resident.

PPPS: A Hacker News thread on this post.

Last built: Mon, Aug 24, 2015 at 9:04 AM

By Dave Winer, Friday, July 24, 2015 at 11:33 AM. Don't slam the door on the way out.