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Evernote CEO: 'We let our users down' with privacy policy change

Blair Hanley Frank | Dec. 19, 2016
The company will anonymise data that employees see to help with machine learning

There are other machine learning systems that will need to be trained on each user's behavior for them to work correctly, Kundu said. The way users search is one such example: Every person uses different methods to search, and it will be necessary to train the system on the way a particular user works in order to be useful.

Note data submitted for those purposes would have the identity of the user removed, and the data scientists analyzing it would see aggregated data, not a specific whole note from a user. 

"That was always the intention," Kundu said. "We respect what you put into Evernote too much to think of it in any way besides that."

If that was the intention all along, why did Evernote change its privacy policy?

Policy details

"Our primary goal with the communication was to be as blatantly transparent as we possibly could, and in the spirit of not trying to get to nuance on it, we just went for the blunt instrument," said Andrew Malcom, Evernote's senior vice president of marketing.

Bluntness and a lack of detail -- coupled with the fact that Evernote hasn't yet completely figured out exactly what it plans to do -- helped lead to the perfect storm of confusion and dismay when the new privacy policy was announced Wednesday.

It also didn't help when the company asserted in its privacy policy update that opting out of the machine learning features wouldn't block employees from viewing user notes for other reasons. Those other reasons don't include allowing Evernote employees to just look at users notes whenever they want, though.

Instead, the company's privacy policy allows employees to view notes for the sake of offering technical support at the request of a user, responding to law enforcement requests, and investigating suspected violations of its terms of service. Users can't opt out of those scenarios.

Those provisions -- especially responding to law enforcement requests -- are common among other online service providers like Evernote. Apple, Microsoft, and Google, which all offer competing services, also provide data from users' accounts in response to police requests they deem appropriate.

Public discussion

In some ways, Evernote's willingness to discuss these issues publicly is a differentiator from its competition.

"The nuanced, every-single-word-is-massaged privacy policies that are overly vague, that intentionally introduce gray areas, that are commonplace among tech companies -- that's not our style," O'Neill said.

When asked about how OneNote handles user privacy for machine learning, a Microsoft spokesperson refused to provide explicit details. The company's privacy policy says that Microsoft collects data about users' usage of OneDrive, which is used for cloud syncing of OneNote files, as well as the content they store inside of it.


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