There’s an app to spy on your friends, family, and co-workers to find out about their fancy dinner parties, who they go out with, and what parties they attend that you weren’t invited to.
It is not a social networking app like Facebook or Snapchat. This is Venmo, the app that rose to popularity more than a decade ago by allowing people to send mobile payments to each other and posting those transactions, often in the form of cute emojis, on a public timeline.
Spying also works the other way around. Even if you rarely use Venmo today, the app is most likely leaking sensitive information about you to the general public.
How can I know? I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I recently discovered that my contact list, which includes the names of people in my phone book, was posted on Venmo for anyone using the app to see.
Indeed, over a decade ago, Venmo made people’s contact lists visible to its users. It created an option to hide the address book only two years ago, long after I stopped using the app.
Venmo is a good example of how even though social norms change about how we use technology, businesses and their apps don’t change much. Venmo was founded in 2009 as a music startup that allowed users to buy band songs via text message. By the time eBay acquired it in 2013, it had become a mobile wallet service that was trending among young people who were enthusiastic about sharing information about themselves online.
Back then, social media was new, and posting your thoughts, moves, and accomplishments for everyone to know was cutting-edge, not grim. Since then, we’ve learned the hard way that sharing seemingly innocuous information can be dangerous. Stalkers, employers or data brokers can use the data to study our whereabouts and activities to target us.
But Venmo remains an app with a strong social networking element, one of many in a generation of apps that are now nearly 15 years old. And if you have apps and internet accounts from then on that are on autopilot, it’s best to revisit them periodically to check their settings to protect your privacy. If you no longer find value in the service, the safest bet may be to delete the account.
Before we get to that, let’s explain why Venmo remains a privacy issue and what to do to protect your data.
In the early 2010s, as smartphones became popular, Venmo followed companies like Facebook and Twitter, which brought the concept of a public timeline into the mainstream. Similar to those networks, Venmo allowed people to publicly post to a stream, in its case payment transaction details, including dollar amount, time, date, and a description, such as pizza or emoji. taxi.
At the time, Braintree, the payments company that bought Venmo in 2012 before it was acquired by eBay, said Venmo had created “praiseworthy experiences” to simplify mobile payments between users of smartphones. (Venmo is now owned by PayPal, which spun off from eBay in 2015.)
Venmo has made a few changes over the years to protect the privacy of its users. In 2021, it disabled its global feed, a feed where users could see Venmo transactions between strangers.
But critics say the app still falls short. Today you can see transactions between people who are not your friends if you visit their profiles.
Venmo is always set by default to share publicly when you receive or make a payment. There is an option to make the transaction private, but if you use the app quickly and don’t notice the setting, you could unknowingly be streaming payments between you and others.
“It’s not just that I went out for pizza with this person,” said Gennie Gebhart, chief executive of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit. “It’s a pattern of who you live and interact with and do business with, and how that changes over time.”
Last month, The Guardian discovered via a Venmo feed that an aide to Justice Clarence Thomas was receiving payments from lawyers who had had cases with the Supreme Court, a potential conflict of interest. The wizard has since hidden his Venmo activity from public view.
While the idea of posting pizza and beer emojis and dollar amounts might seem like a fun way to let others know you’re on the go, there can possibly be consequences. These transactions could be used to study your movements or, in Judge Thomas’ case, inadvertently disclose relationships.
In 2017, Hang Do Thi Duc, a data scientist who was at Mozilla Foundation, released Public by Default, an interactive chart summarizing intimate details extracted from 208 million Venmo transactions. The graphic focused on the daily lives of several Venmo users, including a cannabis dealer, a food cart vendor, and a married couple splitting bills and paying off a loan together.
Venmo said in a statement that the company has been working to change its privacy measures for customers and that privacy settings can be controlled in its app.
So to prevent your daily from streaming on Venmo, be sure to change the settings. In the app, click the Me tab, tap the settings icon, and select Privacy. Under Default privacy settings, select Private. Then, under the “More” section in Privacy, click on “Past transactions” and make sure to set it to “Change all to private”.
Your contact list
Venmo has made the contact list, which can be generated from your smartphone’s address book or your Facebook friends list, visible to any other user of the app.
This can make a lot of information public. In 2021, my colleague Ryan Mac, then at BuzzFeed News, used Venmo to uncover President Biden’s personal account and contact list. Mr. Biden then deleted his Venmo account.
On a personal level, a public address book can reveal a new romantic partner to an ex. For professionals, this could expose a doctor’s patients, a journalist’s sources, or a salesperson’s customers.
To hide your contact list from public view, visit privacy settings, click Friends list and select Private. Also disable the “appear in other users’ friend lists” option.
Revise, then revise again
All tech companies change their data sharing features and settings over time. So take a moment to scroll through your phone and review the settings of apps you haven’t used in a while to see if there’s anything you’ve missed.
Ms Do Thi Duc, who is now a graphics editor at The New York Times, said she was not surprised that Venmo was still making headlines, as the app relied on excessive public sharing as a marketing mechanism. . She said she deleted her Venmo account while researching the company.
After writing this column, I did the same.