Superhuman was the app Silicon Valley was raving about. But privacy concerns regarding its Read Receipts feature has gained the app a bad reputation.
The former VP of Design for Twitter, Mike Davidson, wrote an article about how Superhuman’s seemingly supercool email tracking feature infringes on the privacy of the recipient. In the Superhuman app, the Read Receipts feature turns on by default and tracks if an email has been read or not. It tracks the number of times the email was viewed, the location, and the device from which the email was read. What is startling is that the app does this without the recipient’s consent.
If you received a “Sent by Superhuman” signature in your email, the sender of the email has been tracking your location and the number of times you opened the mail. The is done using pixel tracking, which uses a tiny image sent in emails. After opening the email, the image downloads on the device. The sender knows that the email has been opened and receives the location and the timestamp.
While marketing and sale companies use pixel tracking, email apps such as Gmail, Apple Mail, and Outlook do not promote its use. In fact, the feature is turned off by default. Moreover, a sender cannot obtain information regarding the recipient reading emails without the consent of the receiver. That is why the Read Receipts feature is displeasing.
After the post by Mike Davidson, tech enthusiasts were quick to criticize the Superhuman app. TechCrunch, Gizmodo, Business Insider, Mic, and others covered the story.
Following the uproar from the community, the founder of the startup, Rahul Vohra issued a response. He highlighted the four key issues that users had with the app, including:
- The captured locations data could be used negatively
- The Read Receipts feature is on by default
- The Recipient’s consent is not involved
- The Read Receipts feature cannot be disabled
Vohra apologized and said, “I am sorry for this. When we built Superhuman, we focused only on the needs of our customers. We did not consider potential bad actors. I wholeheartedly apologize for not thinking this more fully.”
The article also mentions a list of changes that the company has implemented and plans to implement. The location tracking feature is currently disabled on the app. The previously captured location data has been erased, so users can no longer track emails. Furthermore, the company also plans to release a new version of the app that turns off the read statuses feature off by default.
Moving on from this, Vohra says, “I now recognize that we must deeply consider the overall ecosystem when designing software as fundamental as email. The team and I are committed to this now more than ever. We need to consider not only our customers, but also future users, the people they communicate with, and the internet at large.”
What does Superhuman do?
The app allows you to have “the fastest email experience ever made” at a subscription of $30/month. According to Superhuman’s founder, the waiting list of customers is around 180,000. According to a New York Times story, the startup Superhuman has a value of $260 million, with only 15,000 customers.
So what makes this app great? After all, it seems like just an ordinary email management app!
At $30/month subscription, it seems like a luxury. But the app claims to target people who use email on a daily basis, for more than three hours a day. Superhuman offers a desktop app, in addition to a mobile version of it. However, more features are available on the desktop version of the app. The app allows users to navigate and sort emails at “superhuman” speeds. With the app, you can undo send, receive insights from social networks, follow-up reminders, and schedule messages. Moreover, users can view a contact’s LinkedIn profile. On a desktop, users can use keyboard shortcuts to save time. The most striking feature of the app, Read Receipts, allows the sender to know when the recipient read the email. This is the same feature that got the app into hot waters.
How to disable email tracking?
Email tracking is a tool primarily used by marketers to determine their outreach. It is a very basic tool but used by countless companies. Since pixel tracking makes use of images, you can disable images from showing in emails. Here is how you can disable email tracking:
- On an iPhone, go to Settings >> Mail, and toggle the “Load Remote Images” off.
- On an Android device, tap on the image and select “Ask before showing.”
- On Gmail, select Settings and open the General Tab. Select Images and then “Ask before displaying external images.” Click on “Save Changes.”
- On Outlook, go to File >> Options >> Trust Center, and select “Trust Center Settings.” Check the following boxes:
- Don’t download pictures automatically in standard HTML messages or RSS items.
- Don’t download pictures in encrypted or signed HTML email messages.
Looking at the bigger picture
This is not the first time that a company has been singled out for privacy concerns. Facebook, Amazon, and Google have faced privacy issues with their platform. Under the guise of providing better services to users, user data is collected without their consent to expand businesses. But the difference is that Superhuman startup decided to do something about the privacy concerns from users and the community.
However, the business model of these multi-billion dollar companies is based on user data; there is very little that they can do to mitigate privacy concerns, without having their business collapse. Anything that we do online—including online purchases, search queries, activity on social media—becomes the fodder for algorithms. Amazon uses data to sell you products, while Facebook and Google use data to help advertisers. In a data-driven world, tech companies need to do better. The current practices are leading the world towards a very dark future, which could become a reality.
With tech companies essentially spying on us, data such as location, text messages, emails, and browsing history, could fall into the hands of pedophiles, frauds, and scammers. Who is to say that monitoring apps such as Xnspy could not be used against someone, even when they provide great monitoring benefits? An email management app like Superhuman could be used to catfish someone. While Superhuman’s privacy issue was of a different nature, it still infringed on a person’s private data not affiliated with the app.
This is where tech companies need to introduce privacy policies that benefit the user. A user’s data is private and should not be made accessible to someone else least of all the company itself.
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