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The Week in Tech: Privacy Concerns Where You Least Expect Them

Single-use apps are developing into social platforms, but without all the safeguards of the more traditional social networks

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last year, I started using Runkeeper. The app is simple: It tracks your runs, logs your speed, shows whether you’re improving, and uses maps to catalog your routes.

I immediately loved the maps function. If users allow location sharing, the map draws an exact line from start to finish. If the runner zags right for half a block, a jagged line pops up. If the runner adds an extra loop on a trail run, it will show up as part of the run in the app. As I scrolled through one night comparing split times, I realized what I had done: I’d created a very accurate guide to the route I take around the same time early every evening, which ended at my home. And, like an idiot, I’d made my account settings were so that all other Runkeeper users could see my location.

Thankfully, Runkeeper allows users to turn that feature off or limit who can see these details to either only friends or only yourself (an action I promptly took). Runkeeper isn’t an obvious social platform and likely wasn’t intended to be one, but after giving users the ability to share all this data with others on the platform, it also needs to add the privacy options that have become safety requirements for the modern internet.

Because Runkeeper and bigger services like Venmo and Spotify aren’t identified as social networks, the misunderstanding about what they are comes with consequences. When an application displays its users’ activity, it becomes a social network. It goes from being utilitarian to a place where voyeurs can glean details about users’ lives. In the case of Spotify, users can share with their Facebook friends and Spotify followers what they’re listening to and what artists they follow. Spotify has an all-or-nothing privacy policy: Users can either turn off sharing and lose access to how others use the platform, or they can leave it on for everyone to see.

The binary options have become a problem because Spotify has become a platform for harassment. A BuzzFeed News story published Wednesday reports that many users—mostly women—are receiving unwanted contact based on their Spotify activity. And while Spotify doesn’t support messaging, people are able to find outside ways to contact others, or to use the streaming service as a communication tool. “A harasser could, say, create a public playlist with a threatening title for their victim to see,” the BuzzFeed story explains. “And they can watch what someone they’re following is listening to, and use that information against them.” According to BuzzFeed, Spotify currently has no plans to add a block button.

Spotify is not the only seemingly single-use application that now has to cope with the downside of being a social network. There is also Venmo, many millennials’ favorite payment system, which is keeping a generation from learning how to accurately divide a check. On Venmo, users split tabs and pay back friends. In some cases, they accidentally (or kindly) send strangers money, all while their transactions are set to “public” by default. Arguably, Venmo is one of the most powerful social networks. Facebook and Instagram try to deduce what people spend money on. Venmo has all that data.

If anyone thinks using clever emoji to disguise their Venmo transactions is effective, bad news: Activist and artist Hang Do Thi Duc created an interactive visualization called Public by Default that takes viewers through all of the public data on Venmo and shows how it can be synthesized. Do Thi Duc chose a handful of people who’d kept their Venmo transactions public and followed their activity for a year, and she was able to tell stories with frightening detail of their lives. She collected the data via Venmo’s public API, which anyone can access (it’s right here).

On the Public by Default about page, Do Thi Duc explains that she created the visualization in hopes that it will make people care more about what companies are doing with their data. “I think it’s problematic that there is a public feed which includes real names, their profile links (to access past transactions), possibly their Facebook IDs and essentially their network of friends they spend time with. And all of this is so easy to access!” For those who don’t think data like this is worth anything (or at least that theirs isn’t), a new report from ProPublica finds that health insurers are using data brokers to comb the internet for information just like this in order to adjust customers’ rates. That’s just one example of how it could be used; others include things like loan applications, mortgages, and employment opportunities.

There is a benefit to the trend of single-use apps becoming the social networks they never intended to be. It gives people new, unassuming places to explore, and there’s a certain joyfulness in seeing something functional turn into a social place. But once they’ve transformed, they need to implement more safety features. Users are well warned about the dangers of Twitter and Facebook and Google, but sending money via Venmo or streaming a song on Spotify feel innocuous. They’re small, forgettable actons that people commit without thought. In some ways, they’re the most dangerous because of the specificity. Those digital actions create the data that fill in the holes and make your life that much more knowable.

Tech ICYMI

Backpedal Award of the Week: Two Guys Named Mark

On Recode Decode this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he doesn’t believe Facebook should take down posts denying the Holocaust because “I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong. … It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.” He has since backpedaled, saying he does not defend Holocaust deniers. And before this latest scandal began to blow over, BuzzFeed News reported that in the days after on election night, Zuckerberg called the president-elect to congratulate him on his win and also for his team’s impressive use of Facebook.

Zuckerberg is not the only Mark in trouble. On Wednesday, actor Mark Duplass tweeted that liberals would be wise to hear out conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. For this, he was quickly and severely owned by Twitter users, who pointed out many of the racist, sexist, and anti-gay remarks Shapiro regularly makes. This Mark also backpedaled and apologized for the tweet, which he deleted.

Much-Needed Update of the Week: Instagram Will Let You Remove Followers

According to The Verge, Instagram is testing a function that would allow public accounts to remove followers. As it stands, users currently have to go private in order to control who can follow them or remain entirely public and deal with the consequences. Removing a follower is less extreme than blocking, and also means users will no longer have to go through the block-and-unblock workaround.

Holiday You Missed: World Emoji Day

Yes, there is now a holiday for everything. Tuesday was World Emoji Day, and I, for one, saw it come and go without much fanfare. (Paris Hilton celebrated.) However, there is a good piece of emoji news coming out of the holiday, and that is—of course—new emoji. There are a few new varieties of hair coming to emoji avatars, as well as a mango, and my personal favorite, a lobster.