Jul 23, 2018

Between the lines: Venmo's public transaction feed is a bad idea

Payments app Venmo includes a feed of what everyone is buying. Screenshot: Venmo.com

I'm late to the Venmo craze. I only signed up last week in hopes of getting everyone to pay me back for drinks and food for a tech reporter meet-up, but the craziest part to me was learning that transactions are made public by default.

Between the lines: Sharing transaction information publicly could reveal a lot, especially if one makes a lot of transactions over time. While designed for friends, information shared publicly could find its way into the hands of data brokers, credit monitors or others.

  • As a reporter, it struck me as a potential gold mine of information, but I can't think of any good reason why someone would want to share their purchase history and LOTS of reasons why that's a terrible idea.

What I'm seeing: I connected to my Facebook feed and contacts purposely to see what I could learn. My friends' purchases ranged from the usual meals and bar tabs, to rugby tickets and a hockey jersey. There wasn't a ton of compromising info, but in addition to my babysitter and several co-workers, I was surprised to see one prominent critic of social media sharing a number of recent purchases.

Berlin-based researcher Hang Do Thi Duc discovered even more by sorting through all the publicly available data and posting her findings online. The site profiles a few different individuals, including a cannabis retailer, whose transactions were made public. She was kind enough not to share real names of the merchant or customers, but that info was among the information available.

Our thought bubble: Obviously there are generational differences when it comes to sharing information. That said, there also seems to be a shift in thinking thanks to the Facebook controversies. The assumption from the mid-2000s till recently was that social networks make things better by encouraging sharing. Now there's a wider awareness that everything we share can be used against us. 

What they're saying: For its part, Venmo says its site was always designed to be social, it doesn't share the amounts paid or publicize what it deems potentially sensitive transactions (those made with a Venmo card or stores that accept Venmo.) The company doesn't plan to change its defaults, but does plan to step up its education efforts.

"Our latest app includes a pop-up privacy tutorial that every user will see when they first open the app to further educate the user on how to choose their preferred privacy settings," a Venmo representative told Axios. "Users will see these tutorials over the coming weeks."

Meanwhile: Snapchat is giving up on Snapcash, its effort to rival Venmo. The peer-to-peer payments technology, which was launched in 2014 in partnership with Square, is set to shut down at the end of August, per TechCrunch.

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