Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Unrolling from unroll.me

Screenshot of unroll.me

Over the weekend, the New York Times profiled Travis Kalanick, the CEO of controversial ride-hailing app Uber. It’s fascinating, and I’d suggest taking a few minutes out to read it. Done? Great – we’ll continue.

The biggest revelation was a supposed meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook; Apple had threatened to remove the Uber app from the App Store for violating its rules. But further down was another surprise, about an email management service called unroll.me.

What is unroll.me?

Unroll.me, when linked to a major email provider like Gmail, goes through your inbox and highlights newsletter subscriptions. You can then choose to:

  • keep these coming into your inbox as normal
  • roll them up into a single daily digest email
  • delete them on receipt

It’s a free service, and, in the early days, Unroll.me made its money solely through advertising in these emails. But in 2014, it was bought by Slice, itself now part of the massive Japanese Rakuten empire. Following its purchase, it started offering anonymised data from the inboxes of its users to third parties. One of these third parties was Uber, and the data it was sending were email receipts from journeys made using its major rival, Lyft.

Unroll.me, from a legal perspective, was probably doing nothing wrong – I’m sure that this was included in its privacy policy and terms of service. But nobody reads those things. Users felt betrayed, and there has been a predictable backlash. Which hasn’t been helped by a statement from the company which basically says that they’ll carry on as before with a vague promise of being more transparent. A Medium post from one of unroll.me’s co-founders isn’t much better.

Delete your account

So, I’ve de-activated my account. I’ve been using unroll.me for about a year, and it’s been useful. But I’m uncomfortable with my data being shared with third parties in this way – especially if one of those is Uber. Though I’ve used Uber in the past, I deleted the app sometime ago, and I have major issues with how they do business.

Europeans like me tend to have a higher expectation that our personal information won’t be sold on by third parties, thanks to legislation like the Data Protection Act (and equivalents in other EU nations). Unroll.me is a US service and runs under US laws, and so it’s probably not doing anything wrong. But that doesn’t stop these revelations from being really, really creepy.

If you want to delete your account, Lifehacker has some instructions; you’ll also need to revoke access to your Google account afterwards if you use Gmail. In any case, managing my email using Google’s new Inbox tool is easier than ‘classic’ Gmail and so I’ll probably stick with that, rather than trying to find an alternative to unroll.me.

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