Is Innovation Worth Giving Up Privacy?

Quick, what’s the operative word in the phrase “Note to self”? If you said “self,” then Evernote begs to differ. The industry-leading note-taking app altered its privacy policy this week, now allowing certain employees to access your notes without your knowledge.

Although the move is officially intended to improve the company’s machine-learning technology, it’s hard not to think about the many things that could go wrong when your previously private information can be seen by not just electronic eyes, but also human ones. That might not sound like a big deal if you use Evernote mostly for to-do reminders or grocery lists, but even that kind of seemingly mundane personal information could be a treasure trove for marketers who get their hands on it.

Even scarier than the potential for specific abuses, though, is the big-picture precedent Evernote is setting with this cavalier dismissal of its users’ personal data. Machine-learning is an important consideration for any data-oriented company, but giving up privacy is too high a cost for improving a product. Much of the current business and social landscape is built on asking us to compromise privacy for functionality. At some point we simply have to say, “enough.”

Predictably, Evernote has already started trying to explain away its decision, with CEO Chris O’Neill explaining that only select employees will be able to access “snippets” of user notes and that those snippets won’t be personally identifiable. O’Neill also notes that users can choose whether or not to participate (a tweet from the company acknowledged that “not everyone feels the same way about machine learning,” which seems a lot like the classic “Sorry you were offended” apology), but that doesn’t seem to be strictly true. Even if you opt out of the machine-learning project, your notes can still be accessed for a variety of reasons, including a vague need to “maintain and improve the service.”

And before you rush to delete your account, let me save you the trouble: you can’t. You can only deactivate it, which is not the same. So, you absolutely need to backup and delete all of your data first before leaving the Evernote fold. DocumentSnap provides some good step-by-step instructions for exporting your data. My tl;dr advice is:

  1. EDIT > Select All

  2. FILE > Export Notes (Choose HTML format or print to PDF)

  3. Cancel subscription

  4. Deactivate account

So where do we go next? Obviously, the door is wide open for a notes app that truly values its users’ privacy. Let’s all head over to Simplenote, the people behind SimpleNote, WordPress, JetPack and many other amazing, open-source tools, and start building something new. Not only do we deserve better, we absolutely need better.