enroll.me

Free is Never Free

The New York Times piece on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is pretty damning. There’s a lot to consider in the article but one bit that stood out for me was this:

They (Uber) spent much of their energy one-upping rivals like Lyft. Uber devoted teams to so-called competitive intelligence, purchasing data from an analytics service called Slice Intelligence. Using an email digest service it owns named Unroll.me, Slice collected its customers’ emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber.
— Mike Issac, New York Times

As I read this, I had to wonder how Unroll.me users felt about their email getting harvested. Unroll.me is a free service that looks at your email for you and helps you unsubscribe from unwanted junk mail. The most important word in that last sentence is “free”.

Free is never free.

Indeed in this case, where unroll.me is owned by an analytics service, it appears that the entire purpose for the service is to get access to user email data for monetization. So apparently Unroll.me, with access to its user email accounts, collected their Lyft receipts, anonymized them, and sold them to Uber. I'm pretty sure people signing up for unroll.me don’t expect that to happen.

The Unroll.me CEO wrote a sort-of apology where he explained that the biggest mistake was not communicating to users how much unroll.me does with subscriber data. “And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough.” Looking through the unroll.me website, I agree. They could definitely do a better job communicating what they're up to.

It’s often argued that you should only use web services that require payment because free services won’t be able to stay in business. However, even scarier in my book are the free services that manage to stay in business and the things they do with your data to keep the lights on.

Be careful out there.