Reminder: Popular Apps Are Never Truly 'Free'

Image: Geek&Poke

Users of the newsletter management app Unroll.me have been left outraged after discovering the service was "secretly" mining and selling their data to Uber - specifically, email receipts from rival company Lyft.

On the surface, this seems like a sneaky and underhanded betrayal of user trust. However, the app's Privacy Policy made it abundantly clear that this sort of thing was a possibility. It's another reminder that you need to actually read the terms and conditions if you care about privacy.

Unroll.me's business relationship with Uber came to light during a New York Times investigation into the latter's extensive use of competitive intelligence. In short, Uber was buying data collected by Unroll.me in an attempt to give it an edge over its rival, Lyft. This came in the form of emailed Lyft receipts which were scraped from users' inboxes.

Now, it's important to note that this data was anonymised, meaning that customers' names and other identifying information was not included. This was explicitly confirmed by Unroll.me's CEO and founder Jojo Hedaya via the following statement:

"I can't stress enough the importance of your privacy. We never, ever release personal data about you. All data is completely anonymous and related to purchases only."

Nevertheless, many Unroll.me users felt that their privacy had been violated, prompting them to unsubscribe from the service and lambaste it online. So did the company actually do anything wrong?

As previously reported, it is very clear when you look at the service's Privacy Policy that it collects and sells your anonymised data:

We may collect and use your commercial transactional messages and associated data to build anonymous market research products and services with trusted business partners... When you use our websites, you agree that we may share information about you as described in this Privacy Notice.

For its part, Unroll.me has committed to bringing its Privacy Policy more front-and-centre via "clearer messaging" on its app and website. But the onus is really on the user. As Hedaya notes in his begrudging online apology:

"We have a Terms of Service Agreement and a plain-English Privacy Policy that our users agree they have read and understand before they even sign up, but the reality is most of us - myself included - don't take the time to thoroughly review them."

An interesting side note in this whole debacle was the anger directed at Lifehacker and other tech websites for recommending Unroll.me in the past. Many readers wondered why no websites had reported on the privacy issue prior to the New York Times investigation. Where was the vetting process?

Well, here's the thing: when Unroll.me first hit the market in 2011 it was supported by ads. Data selling did not become part of its business strategy until later. Unfortunately, no website has the time or resources to "re-vet" an app every time it is mentioned. Likewise, app reviews tend to focus exclusively on what does and doesn't work: investigating the business practices of the company behind the app is a different beat entirely.

But above all else, this is about common sense. As the adage goes: if you're not paying for it, you are the product. This is especially true if the service in question isn't supported by ads or in-app purchases. A free, third-party service with access to your email is almost certainly mining your data for something. It would be silly to assume otherwise.

With all that said, you are well within your rights to protest the way a company attempts to monetise its "free" service. If you don't like the idea of your anonymous data being mined for profit by third-party apps, you can put a stop to it today by revoking their access. This guide explains how it's done. You can also find out how to permanently delete your Unroll.me account here.

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Comments

    If you don't know what a company is selling to make a profit...assume the company is selling you.

    I thought everyone understood that to some extent...

    Last edited 26/04/17 3:34 pm

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