Unroll.me and Slice: An Important Conversation about Privacy

privacyTwo of the tools that I love and recommend are Unroll.me and Slice. And boy are people mad at them.

Unroll.me helps manage your inbox by analyzing your emails to find subscription services. Then you can unsubscribe with one click or digest your subscriptions into one email a day. Slice analyzes your inbox for shipments and keep track of your packages while also tracking your warranties, consumer recalls and price drops. Slice bought Unroll.me a couple of years ago, and that’s where the trouble seems to have started.

An article in The New York Times examined why people are mad at Uber, the ride-sharing app. Buried in an article called “Uber’s C.E.O. Plays with Fire,” The NYT wrote,

With Mr. Kalanick setting the tone at Uber, employees acted to ensure the ride-hailing service would win no matter what.

They spent much of their energy one-upping rivals like Lyft. Uber devoted teams to so-called competitive intelligence, purchasing data from an analytics service called Slice Intelligence. Using an email digest service it owns named Unroll.me, Slice collected its customers’ emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber. Uber used the data as a proxy for the health of Lyft’s business. (Lyft, too, operates a competitive intelligence team.)

Slice confirmed that it sells anonymized data (meaning that customers’ names are not attached) based on ride receipts from Uber and Lyft, but declined to disclose who buys the information.

So the helpful tool Unroll.me was outed for aggregating data from your purchases to sell to companies who want to know what you’re doing. People are furious. The Unroll.me CEO wrote an apology saying that they’re surprised people didn’t know because the disclosure is in the terms and conditions. Many articles have popped up on how to delete Unroll.me, and if you’re mad, too, you should do it as well.

But let’s think about this for a minute.Unroll.me’s actions do not come as a surprise to me. Although I can’t say I was aware of the specific way they were benefitting from our relationship, I know that every time I let something have access to my email, photos, microphone, documents, etc., the company has access to my private life. The companies that offer cool, helpful tools such as Unroll.me are not run by trust-fund babies who are creating technology for the good of mankind. Most of us need to monetize the work we do in one way or another. Yes, there are a few developers who create a cool tool to share, but they are in the minority.

Remember this: If the product is free, YOU are the product.

Facebook collects mountains of data that it lets advertisers use to target you. Google reads your emails and tracks where you go on the web. The aggregation and sale of browsing history and interests is massive. If you’re taking advantage of the good things the connected world has to offer, someone is taking advantage of you.

What can you do to protect your privacy?

I highly, highly, highly recommend you sign up for the free (and non-intrusive) email series called The Privacy Paradox. These five emails give you simple steps to understand and examine your privacy options in today’s tech world. When I listened to the series, I came to the conclusion that I’m comfortable with trading my data for the convenience that tech tools and services offer me. But you may not be. The first step is to listen to the series to become aware of what’s happening. Then you can decide what, if anything, you want to do about it.

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