A new report from Motherboard today dives into a few iOS and Mac email apps/services that aren’t being very transparent about selling users’ personal data. Notably, one of them is even in Apple’s App Store ranked in the top 100 for productivity apps.
Update 2/21: Cleanfox shared an official statement refuting Motherboard‘s claims, see it in full below.
The first email app Motherboard highlights in its report as using scraping to sell personal data is Edison. While the developer says on its website that it does “process” its users’ emails, Edison customers that Motherboard interviewed said they didn’t realize what was happening.
And when looking at the big picture, Edison having phrases like “privacy by design” and “privacy first” on its website can feel misleading after learning about how they scrape and sell personal data.
“They could definitely be a bit more upfront about their commercial intents,” Seb Insua, a Edison user who said they were unaware of the data selling, told Motherboard. “Their website is all like ‘No Ads’ and ‘Privacy First’,” he added (the company’s website says “Edison Trends practices privacy by design.”)
Motherboard learned specifics in a J.P. Morgan document about how Edison pitches selling personal email data to companies:
That document describes Edison as providing “consumer purchase metrics including brand loyalty, wallet share, purchase preferences, etc.” The document adds that the “source” of the data is the “Edison Email App.”
Notably, Edison is ranked as the 58th most popular productivity app on the App Store with a 4.6/5 star average rating.
Motherboard also discovered that two other popular email apps/services are using the same practice of scraping and selling user’s email data, Cleanfox and Slice.
COO for Foxintelligence (Cleanfox’s parent company) told Motherboard they see selling user data as good for consumers and companies…
“From a higher perspective, we believe crowd-sourced transaction data has a transformational power both for consumers and for companies and that a marketplace where value can be created for both sides without making any compromise on privacy is possible,” Foxintelligence Chief Operating Officer Florian Cleyet-Merle told Motherboard in an email.
Some users might not mind their inboxes being scraped and data sold in exchange for free apps/services but transparency is key for customers to be able to make the best decision.
Check out the full report on these email apps/services here.
Edison has shared more specifics on its approach to providing a free email service without ads, how it scrapes email data anonymously, and how to opt-out in a Medium post.
To keep our Edison Mail app free, and to protect your privacy by rejecting an advertising-based business model, our company Edison Software, measures e-commerce through a technology that automatically recognizes commercial emails and extracts anonymous purchase information from them. Our technology is designed to ignore personal and work email, which does not help us measure market trends.
We intentionally keep our consumer and business products under a single brand to ensure that our consumer users are familiar with our business model.
Our mission is to provide an independent and free email app that is NOT backed by an ad-based business model. There are two reasons why this mission is critical — 1) consumers need to have a choice for a free email app and 2) users have a right to privacy.
Our research-backed business model allows us to provide a privacy-focused and viable free email app that consumers want. We discuss this further on our blog.
We launched our Edison Trends e-commerce research product that provides insights about shopping trends from aggregated and anonymized transaction data extracted with permission from our Edison Mail app users. Research from Edison Trends is often used by the nation’s leading press reporting on retail trends — including outlets like The Wall Street Journal, PCMag, Bloomberg, and more. Our Edison Trends research has been cited in more than 1,500 press articles in the past three years. Anyone — including users of Edison Mail — can read about Edison Trends research in the news almost daily. You can see examples of the research we create from the data we collect on our research page and in the following chart.
The use of anonymized data for research to facilitate learning is a wide practice used by many types of organizations — from the U.S. Census, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), banks, credit card companies and more. Edison Mail users have the option, at any time, to opt-out of data sharing for Edison Trends research or delete any data we collect with no impact to their app experience.
In 2018, our email app and business model was mentioned in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in an article referencing how our app allows users to opt-out of data sharing in our research at will.
Our team at Edison also hopes that press and consumers alike will take the time to learn more about companies like us to better understand how data is being used, and which players are truly worth that wariness vs those that are working hard to offer great products in a transparent manner, without infringing on their own user’s privacy.
As an email app, we hope all of our users understand the access they allow when they connect us to their accounts in order for us to keep the app free, independant and ad-free. We use that access to provide our services and build new AI-enabled email features. We communicate that clearly, our users always had to give us permission, and have the ability to opt-out of data sharing for research at any time.
We continue to put privacy first at Edison Software — we do not target our users for ads and we actively prevent other companies from tracking them in our app. We want to point you to our overview of all the privacy standards we have in place at Edison.
We thank and appreciate all our Edison Mail users, and we strive every day to create the best independent email app, without sacrificing your privacy.
2/21 Cleanfox statement:
For several days, our Cleanfox app has been the subject of unfounded accusations in the press which have damaged the reputation of our company. Not only are these accusations false and akin to defamation, but they are also at odds with our beliefs and our commitments to the protection of privacy.
Since the very creation of Foxintelligence, we have chosen to be even more demanding than what is required by the General Regulations on the Protection of Personal Data (GDPR):
We are also committed to never resell the personal data of our users, not to participate in any advertising targeting device and not to cause any harm to our users. Foxintelligence creates and resells anonymized and aggregated statistics, like any survey institute does.
We believe in a model in which the service is free and the user is not the product.
It is for these reasons that we strongly reject the recent accusations that Cleanfox sells user data to third-party companies. This is false and defamatory.
We also reject accusations that we are not transparent with our users. A simple visit to our website allows you to realize this.
Total transparency with our users
Before the user connects to Cleanfox, we detail in black and white our commitment to never sell any personal data to third parties and only to market statistics based on anonymized and aggregated data.
Foxintelligence and Cleanfox have never sold and will never sell personal data to third-parties
Cleanfox is a free service. Foxintelligence sells statistics such as the estimation of turnover of e-commerce platforms or the growth rate of online sales.
To produce these statistics, we anonymize and aggregate order confirmation emails (e-receipts). These statistics are in no way user profiling, they do not allow any kind of reconciliation with a user of our app.
The cases of data that would be “de-anonymized” mentioned by certain articles, are related to a practice we’ve always refuse to follow: the pseudonymization of data, that is to say, assigning a unique identifier to each user. It is therefore impossible to link Foxintelligence statistics to any user.
We do not sell any data that will be used for advertising targeting purposes
Unlike most online services or social media, Foxintelligence does not sell the personal data of its users. Foxintelligence’s business model is in no way link to advertising. Thus, if you use Cleanfox, you will never subsequently be the subject of targeted or non-targeted advertisements from third-party companies because of your registration with Cleanfox.
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