Nicole Nguyen, BuzzFeed News Reporter
When you sign up for a free online service, you’re usually giving up your personal info in return. Here’s how to find out just how egregious that data collection is.
If there’s only one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
The New York Times recently reported that Unroll.me, an email management app that promises to de-clutter your inbox, sold its users’ anonymized Lyft receipt data to Uber. Unroll.me claims that it’s “trusted by millions of happy users” — but it’s likely that those users weren’t aware that they were forking over their personal emails to Slice Intelligence, a digital commerce analytics company. Now, some users are pledging to remove their inbox accessfrom Unroll.me and delete their accounts.
The Unroll.me/Uber fury is a good reminder of the ol’ Internet adage, “if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”
But some sites are much more egregious than others. So here are some ways you can assess an app’s trustworthiness and find out if your free faves are problematic.
What does “you’re the product” even mean?
When you sign up for a free online service, you’re most likely giving up something in return: your data. On sites like Facebook and Google, that means the service uses your personal information (like your interests, location, gender, marital status, or age) to show you advertisements they think you’d be interested in. Last year, Facebook made more than $26 billion from advertising.
For many people, this sounds like a good trade off: You get to use something legitimately useful, like Gmail, for free, and the most visible consequence is an advertisement. But other companies go much farther. Unroll.me, for example, didn’t use user data to target ads — it looked at individual emails and sent them to Uber.
And if you found that story about Target knowing a teen girl was pregnant before her father did thanks to extensive customer data collection to be pretty creepy, you should know that that same kind of analytics-based-advertising-influence has probably been exercised on you.
How do I know what companies are doing with my data? Is it safe?
Be very careful about what kind of access you give apps. To do that, closely at what you’re agreeing to when you sign up.
For example, when you sign up for Unroll.me, you’re giving the service the ability to read, send, delete, and manage your email. This is a good time to ask yourself: Does the service really need all of these permissions? Do I trust this service?