February 24, 2020

The Five Stages of Privacy Erosion

“Call it the Five Stages of Privacy Erosion.

Tech Company builds popular product.

Product is exposed in the press for doing something shady behind the scenes.

Tech Company apologizes/clarifies/signals a fix.

Brief phase of collective rejoicing and moving on.

It’s revealed (usually by the same people) that Product was never really fixed.

That’s the rough trajectory of two recent privacy stories in just the past week. The first is an update to a story I wrote about last month regarding Google quietly monitoring and storing all your purchases across sites like Amazon. When CNBC discovered the story, Google assured concerned users that they could delete their purchase history. A follow-up report from CNBC suggests that contrary to Google’s claims, the fix doesn’t remove the purchase history. The company, according to the report, “is looking into it.”

Then there’s Superhuman, the exclusive Silicon Valley start-up for power emailers. At the end of last month, a former Twitter engineer, Mike Davidson, wrote a blog post detailing the ways in which Superhuman violated the privacy of its users by tracking every time their emails have been viewed by recipients — all by default, with little room to opt out
. The backlash prompted a response from Superhuman’s C.E.O., Rahul Vohra, who promised to reconsider many of the tracking features. “When we built Superhuman,” he wrote, “we focused only on the needs of our customers. We did not consider potential bad actors.””

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