As part of a larger redesign, the payment app Venmo has discontinued its public “global” feed. That means the Venmo app will no longer show you strangers’ transactions—or show strangers your transactions—all in one place. This is a big step in the right direction. But, as the redesigned app rolls out to users over the next few weeks, it’s unclear what Venmo’s defaults will be going forward. If Venmo and parent company PayPal are taking privacy seriously, the app should make privacy the default, not just an option still buried in the settings.
Currently, all transactions and friends lists on Venmo are public by default, painting a detailed picture of who you live with, where you like to hang out, who you date, and where you do business. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with all the ways this could cause harm to real users, and the gallery of Venmo privacy horrors is well-documented at this point.
However, Venmo apparently has no plans to make transactions private by default at this point. That would squander the opportunity it has right now to finally be responsive to the concerns of Venmo users, journalists, and advocates like EFF and Mozilla. We hope Venmo reconsiders.
There’s nothing “social” about sharing your credit card statement with your friends.
Even a seemingly positive move from “public” to “friends-only” defaults would maintain much of Venmo’s privacy-invasive status quo. That’s in large part because of Venmo’s track record of aggressively hoovering up users’ phone contacts and Facebook friends to populate their Venmo friends lists. Venmo’s installation process nudges users towards connecting their phone contacts and Facebook friends to Venmo. From there, the auto-syncing can continue silently and persistently, stuffing your Venmo friends list with people you did not affirmatively choose to connect with on the app. In some cases, there is no option to turn this auto-syncing off. There’s nothing “social” about sharing your credit card statement with a random subset of your phone contacts and Facebook friends, and Venmo should not make that kind of disclosure the default.
It’s also unclear if Venmo will continue to offer a “public” setting now that the global feed is gone. Public settings would still expose users’ activities on their individual profile pages and on Venmo’s public API, leaving them vulnerable to the kind of targeted snooping that Venmo has become infamous for.
We were pleased to see Venmo recently take the positive step of giving users settings to hide their friends lists. Throwing out the creepy global feed is another positive step. Venmo still has time to make transactions and friends lists private by default, and we hope it makes the right choice.
If you haven’t already, change your transaction and friends list settings to private by following the steps in this post.