Uber's use of Unroll.me data to watch Lyft sparks backlash


Widespread controversy resulted when users discovered in April 2017 that the little-known data company Slice Intelligence was passing anonymised data derived from scanning users' email inboxes to the ride-hailing company Uber. The story illustrates both the power of anonymous data and the complex relationships among Silicon Valley companies that obscure their data practices. 
The story begins with Unroll.me, a free service that helps people manage their email by consolidating subscription emails and newsletters, unsubscribing from unwanted lists, and minimising clutter. To grant the service access, users of Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Outlook.com, Hotmail, MSN, Windows Live, iCloud email, and AOL Mail sign in on the web or via the Unroll.me app. 

Slice bought Unroll.me in 2014. Today, the company's privacy policy says, "we may collect, use, transfer, sell and disclose nonpersonal information for any purpose" and that the data can be used "to build anonymous market research products and services". Few users ever read privacy policies, however, and this is one reason so many were surprised and outraged when the New York Times reported how their data, albeit anonymised, was being used. An important part of that outrage, however, was the fact that the data was being shared with Uber, an increasingly controversial company because of its previous privacy missteps and ongoing clashes with regulators around the world. 

In the wake of the revelations, Unroll.me CEO Jojo Hedaya expressed regret and said that the company will change the way it communicates its policies via its website, app, and FAQs so that they are clearer to users. However, he indicated no intention of changing those policies, which are common practice in a largely unregulated industry in which Unroll.me is a very small player.


Writer: Mike Isaac and Steve Lohr
Publication: New York Times
Publication date: 2017-04-24


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