There’s an app to spy on your friends, family and co-workers, so you can find out about their fancy dinners, the people they’re dating and the parties they’re attending. Wasn’t invited.
This is not a social networking app like Facebook or Snapchat. Its VenmoThe app that became popular more than a decade ago by enabling people to send mobile payments to each other and post those transactions, often in the form of cute emoji, on public timelines.
Espionage works in other ways as well. Even if you rarely use Venmo today, the app is leaking sensitive information about you to the general public.
How will I know? I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I recently learned that my contact list, which includes the names of people in my phone book, was published on Venmo for anyone using the app to see.
That’s because, more than a decade ago, Venmo made people’s contact lists visible to its users. It only created the option to hide the address book two years ago, long after I stopped using the app.
Venmo is a strong example of how even as societal norms change on the way we use technology, companies and their apps don’t change much. Venmo was founded in 2009 as a music start-up that allowed users to purchase songs from bands via text message. Till then eBay acquired it in 2013It became a mobile wallet service that was trending among young people who were eager to share information about themselves online.
At the time, social networking was novel, and posting your thoughts, activities, and accomplishments for all to see was cutting-edge, not sinister. Since then, we’ve learned the hard way that sharing such seemingly innocuous information can be dangerous. Stalkers, recruiters or data brokers may use the data to study our whereabouts and activities in order to target us.
But Venmo remains an app with a strong social networking element, one of many apps in a generation nearly 15 years old. And if you have apps and internet accounts that are on autopilot since then, it’s best to revisit them from time to time to check their settings so that you can safeguard your privacy. If you no longer find any value in the service, deleting the account may be the safest option.
Before we get into that, let’s take a look at why Venmo remains a privacy concern and what to do to protect your data.
In the early 2010s, as smartphones became popular, Venmo joined forces with companies such as Facebook and Twitter, bringing the concept of public timelines into the mainstream. Similar to those networks, Venmo allowed people to publicly post on the feed, in its case details of payment transactions, which included the dollar amount, time, date and a description, such as a pizza or taxicab emoji.
At the time, Braintree, the payments company that bought Venmo in 2012 before it was bought by eBay, said that Venmo had “madecommendable experienceTo simplify mobile payments among smartphone users. (Venmo is now owned by PayPal, which was spun off from eBay in 2015.)
Venmo has made some changes over the years to protect the privacy of its users. In 2021, it disabled its global feed, a stream where users could view Venmo transactions between strangers.
But critics say the app is still underpowered. Today, you can see transactions between people who aren’t your friends if you visit their profiles.
Venmo is still set by default to share publicly when you receive or make payments. There’s an option to make transactions private, but if you use the app too quickly and don’t pay attention to the setting, you could inadvertently transmit payments between yourself and others.
“It’s not like I went out to pizza with this guy,” said Jenny Gebhart, managing director of the digital rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s a pattern of who you live with, interact with and do business with, and how it changes over time.”
Last month, The Guardian discovered it via Venmo feed An aide of Justice Clarence Thomas was taking payments There may be a potential conflict of interest with lawyers who have had practice with the Supreme Court. Ally has since hidden his Venmo activity from public view.
Although the idea of posting pizza and beer emoji and dollar amounts may seem like a fun way to let others know you’re out and about, it can eventually have consequences. Those transactions can be used to study your activities or, in Justice Thomas’s case, inadvertently disclose relationships.
In 2017, data researcher Hang Du Thi Duc, who was there Mozilla Foundation, published public by default, an interactive graphic summarizing the intimate details gleaned from 208 million Venmo transactions. The graphic depicts the daily lives of several Venmo users, including a cannabis dealer, a food cart vendor and a married couple splitting bills and paying off debt together.
Venmo said in a statement that the company has worked to change its privacy measures for customers and that privacy settings can be controlled from within its app.
So to prevent your daily life from being broadcast on Venmo, be sure to change the settings. Click on the Me tab inside the app, tap on the Settings icon and select Privacy. Under Default privacy settings, select Private. Then, under the “More” section in Privacy, click on “Past Transactions” and be sure to set it to “Switch Everyone to Private”.
your contact list
Venmo has built in contact lists, which can be generated from your smartphone’s address book or your Facebook friends list, that any other user on the app can see.
This can make a lot of information public. In 2021, my colleague Ryan Mack, who was at BuzzFeed News at the time, Venmo was tapped to search President Biden’s account and personal contact list. Mr Biden later deleted his Venmo account.
On a personal level, a public address book may reveal a former partner’s new romantic partner. For professionals, it can expose a doctor’s patients, a journalist’s sources, or a salesperson’s clients.
To hide your contact list from public view, go to Privacy Settings, click on Friends List and select Private. Also, toggle off the “Appear in other users’ friends lists” option.
Review, then review 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 inside apps you haven’t used in a while to see if there’s anything you missed.
Ms. Do Thi Duck, now a graphics editor at the New York Times, said she was not surprised that Venmo was still making headlines, because the app relied on people’s public oversharing as a marketing mechanism. He said he had deleted his Venmo account while researching the company.
After writing this column, I did the same.