Technology First Look

Why Evernote is backpedaling its new privacy policy

The notetaking company says that despite the implications of its proposed policy change, it remains devoted to user privacy. 

A boy uses a laptop as he does his homework at his home in Ronda, southern Spain.
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Evernote, a note-taking and organizational app, pulled a rapid reverse on proposed changes to its privacy policy on Thursday, after users complained that these changes constituted a breach of their personal privacy.

On Wednesday, Evernote announced that in January, it would begin allowing some of its employees to read user notes in order to improve the company’s machine learning technology. Users reacted furiously, with some fans on Twitter calling the policy "disgraceful" and an "abuse of trust."

By Thursday, the app’s developers had backtracked on the controversial policy. Now, users must choose to opt into the machine learning program.  

“We announced a change to our privacy policy that made it seem like we didn’t care about the privacy of our customers or their notes. This was not our intent, and our customers let us know that we messed up, in no uncertain terms. We heard them, and we’re taking immediate action to fix it,” said Evernote chief executive Chris O’Neill in a statement.

The policy was originally supposed to go into effect on Jan. 23, 2017, but after brief attempts to try to reassure customers, Evernote decided yesterday to backtrack.

The clause that seemed leave customers most upset was one that discussed the option of choosing not to participate in machine learning technologies development, which would include some employee review of data. In order to opt out of this development, customers would have to choose "no" to the portion of their privacy settings that said, "Allow Evernote to use my data to improve my experience."

Evernote now says that while it is "excited" about the possibilities offered by machine learning, it is sorry for the breach of privacy implied by this clause. Customers can still choose to participate in the machine learning program, but they will have to do so deliberately.

Customers who choose not to participate in the machine learning program, Evernote suggested, could miss out on a better user experience.

“We are excited about what we can offer Evernote customers thanks to the use of machine learning, but we must ask for permission, not assume we have it,” said Mr. O’Neill on Thursday. “We’re sorry we disappointed our customers, and we are reviewing our entire privacy policy because of this.”

According to Evernote’s terms of service, however, employees have always been able to see certain user data to comply with legal requirements, such as when there are reports of harmful or illegal content, and in order to troubleshoot. The company does not sell user data, according to its stated policies.

Evernote is not alone in confronting questions about user privacy online. In May, for example, dating app OkCupid came under scrutiny for a study involving user information. Although the researchers claimed their data was already "public," by being available on the site, OkCupid members took exception to their information being used without notification, further muddying the already murky waters of online privacy.

Most recently, Yahoo users are reeling after the company revealed that a 2013 data breach exposed approximately 1 billion people to hackers.

Despite the uproar it caused over its privacy policy, however, Evernote officials say they remain devoted to protecting users.

“Trust is at the heart of our service,” said O’Neill in a statement. “That means we need to be transparent, admit our missteps, and commit to making the Evernote experience the best it can be, from the way the app functions across platforms to the way we communicate with the people who use it.”