Many apps sell their users information but, when it comes to email, it’s personal.
The free app Unroll.Me was accused of selling such data to Uber, which has had its own rocky relationship with consumers (and even its own workers) in recent months. Unroll.me, which is meant to streamline email use and help consumers unsubscribe from pesky newsletters en masse, reportedly sold information to Uber about when its users were switching to competitor Lyft via receipts in their emails, according to the New York Times.
The app’s co-founder and chief executive officer Jojo Hedaya said on Monday the company can do better. “Our users are the heart of our company and service,” he wrote. “So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service. And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough.” He said the data was aggregated and completely anonymous. However, studies have shown a person’s identity can be exposed by analyzing only four points of “anonymized” shopping data.
The reason people care: Unroll.Me is supposed to protect you from marketers. “It positions itself as a way to simplify your life and unsubscribe from unwanted marketing emails,” said privacy researcher Ashkan Soltani. “The market for folks that don’t want spam is likely strongly correlated with folks who don’t want their emails scanned for their behaviors.”
Need to delete @Unrollme account ASAP. Never giving any service access to my inbox again. https://t.co/5zjirmPAUK
— John Sheehan (@johnsheehan) April 23, 2017
Its data collection shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows the history to this app (or read the privacy statement.) In 2014, Unroll.Me was acquired by shopping app Slice, which has a market research division that measures e-commerce from a panel of 4.7 million online shoppers. A spokeswoman for Slice said “Unroll.Me users are part of that panel — it’s really not a secret.” She also rejected the idea that Unroll.Me was a front for data collection.
“Unroll.Me was started as an e-mail decluttering tool,” she said. “For a long time, the service was self-funded and we tested several business models before we decided to build a monetization strategy on our data.”
“Nobody reads privacy policies and they are written to be intentionally vague,” said. “I don’t think it was obvious to folks using it, given the amount of backlash.
Had to do this today. @Unrollme really lost all trust. pic.twitter.com/rEB7hH2VYU
— Jake Spurlock (@whyisjake) April 24, 2017
There are a number of alternatives to Unroll.Me, including CleanEmail, which claims to not have access to personal data and does not store information after analyzing it. However, it costs $7.99 a month to maintain one account. Another service, Sanebox, says its software “cannot see the content of your emails” and promises it will “never sell your data.” It costs $7 a month for its most basic service and $36 per month for its most expensive subscription.
If you have an account on Unroll.Me, you can delete it under “settings.” When a user deletes their account, Unroll.Me immediately deletes all user data associated with it, according to the spokeswoman. Even if you don’t have an account with Unroll.Me, now is a good time to review who has access to your email if you use Gmail. Still, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of consumers to make sure their privacy is not monetized, said Soltani.
“The answer is stronger regulation to allow people to innovate on the internet without sacrificing privacy,” he said.
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