Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Deep Deconstruction of a Surveillance Feature in One Email Client

Mike Davidson wrote about the widespread implications of the sender-controlled read receipts that are enabled by default in Superhuman:

What I see in Superhuman though is a company that has mistaken taking advantage of people for good design. They’ve identified a feature that provides value to some of their customers (i.e. seeing if someone has opened your email yet) and they’ve trampled the privacy of every single person they send email to in order to achieve that. Superhuman never asks the person on the other end if they are OK with sending a read receipt (complete with timestamp and geolocation). Superhuman never offers a way to opt out. Just as troublingly, Superhuman teaches its user to surveil by default. I imagine many users sign up for this, see the feature, and say to themselves “Cool! Read receipts! I guess that’s one of the things my $30 a month buys me.”

When products are introduced into the market with behaviors like this, customers are trained to think they are not just legal but also ethical. They don’t always take the next step and ask themselves “wait, should I be doing this?” It’s kind of like if you walked by someone’s window at night and saw them naked. You could do one of two things: a) look away and get out of there, realizing you saw something that person wouldn’t want you to see, or b) keep staring, because if they really didn’t want anyone to see them, they should have closed their blinds. It’s two ways of looking at the world, and Superhuman is not just allowing for option B but actively causing it to happen. It’s almost as if Superhuman is aiming a motion-sensitive camera outside people’s windows and sending alerts when there is motion. It’s automated and designed to capture info when your family, your friend, your co-worker, or your victim is not aware. You may think “victim” is too harsh of a word to use here, but remember, we aren’t talking about you. We are talking about anyone who might use Superhuman.

This piece is fantastic. It’s not just about read receipts in one not-very-popular email app; it’s about how the ethical decisions that are made early in a company’s life impact its ongoing commitments.

Anyway, always disable images in your email client.

Update: Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra says that read receipts will now be disabled by default. I think this response is terrific, but as Nilay Patel points out, this mess wouldn’t exist for Superhuman — nor any other app that may be less willing or quick to course-correct — with strong user-centric privacy legislation.