Trending: Facebook’s newest Seattle offices in Amazon’s backyard sell for $415M
Superhuman email as seen on the company’s homepage. (Superhuman Image)

Update, Monday, 3 p.m.: Mike Davidson has returned with another personal blog post about Superhuman, calling the startup’s privacy fixes “superficial” and saying that none of the changes keep the email app maker from spying on people.

“I’m a little surprised how quickly some people are rolling over and giving Superhuman credit for fixing a problem that they didn’t actually fix,” Davidson said in response to the update below, which came after Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra appeared to give in to much of what Davidson was venting about on June 30.

Davidson is chiefly concerned that Superhuman has not addressed the fact that it will still log how many times an email is opened by a recipient. “‘A little less creepy’ is still creepy,” he wrote Monday.

Update, July 3, 3:40 p.m.: Superhuman founder and CEO Rahul Vohra has responded to what he called the “vigorous debate” on his startup’s use of pixel tracking within email, writing in a new blog post about what changes will take place and what kind of company Superhuman is aspiring to be.

Vohra spelled out why some have been critical of Superhuman’s use of “read statuses,” including the fact that the feature was turned on by default. He also acknowledged the potential for location data to be used in nefarious ways.

“We hear you loud and clear,” Vohra wrote. “We are making these changes.”

  1. We have stopped logging location information for new email, effective immediately.
  2. We are releasing new app versions today that no longer show location information.
  3. We are deleting all historical location data from our apps.
  4. We are keeping the read status feature, but turning it off by default. Users who want it will have to explicitly turn it on.
  5. We are prioritizing building an option to disable remote image loading.

Original story: Regular humans looking for a better way to communicate via email may be intrigued by the hype around a new email app out of Silicon Valley called Superhuman. But one Seattle tech veteran is questioning the ethical standards of the startup, saying functionality in its product amounts to spying.

Mike Davidson, the former VP of design at Twitter and founder of Newsvine, wrote in a lengthy post on his Mike Industries blog on Sunday that he was disappointed in the fact that Superhuman “has decided to embed hidden tracking pixels inside of the emails its customers send out.” Davidson said that the “read receipt” function is turned on by default in Superhuman, without consent of mail recipients, but unlike in other email clients, users cannot opt out of it in Superhuman.

Mike Davidson. (InVision Photo)

Superhuman provides senders a running log of every time an email is opened as well as the geolocation of where the mail was opened.

“Ask yourself if you expect this information to be collected on you and relayed back to your parent, your child, your spouse, your co-worker, a salesperson, an ex, a random stranger, or a stalker every time you read an email,” wrote Davidson, who was invited into the invitation-only, $30-a-month service several months ago.

The $260 million startup, which raised $33 million in May, was featured in The New York Times just a couple days before Davidson’s post. The Times called it the “buzziest start-up in San Francisco.” On its own website, Superhuman calls its product “gorgeous” and “blazingly fast” and says that it rebuilt the inbox from the ground up to make users better at what they do.

Update, July 2, 5:45 p.m.: In response to a GeekWire message, Davidson said Superhuman’s tracking behavior has bothered him for a long time.

“I feel like I (and probably countless others) gave them ample opportunity to just fess up, say they didn’t think things through, and do the right thing,” he wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon. “But they haven’t even acknowledged they agree that it’s a problem. In fact, they seem to still feel like spying on people is a feature. All I’d like to see come out of this is for companies to be more respectful of people. Don’t do things just because you know you can probably get away with it for awhile. Do things because they are the right things to do.”

Davidson initially voiced his concerns on Twitter:

He used his blog post to elaborate on privacy and why he believes making ethical decisions during the early stages of a company is important.

“Companies decide early on what sort of companies they will end up being,” Davidson wrote. “The company they may want to be is often written in things like ‘core values’ that are displayed in lunch rooms and employee handbooks, but the company they will be is a product of the actual decisions they make — especially the tough decisions.”

The danger, in Davidson’s view, is that Superhuman has built a product that “teaches its user to surveil by default.” These behaviors train customers to think the practice is not just legal but also ethical. “They don’t always take the next step and ask themselves ‘wait, should I be doing this?'” he added.

Davidson shared reaction he’s gotten on Twitter — including from a Superhuman investor — and reading replies to some of his tweets demonstrates that many people either aren’t as concerned or believe that lots of email services do the same thing.

His post contains three potential scenarios illustrating the “bad things” people could do with technology like Superhuman. And he ultimately called out Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra, writing that the first thing Vohra should do is apologize and remove the read receipt functionality for everyone.

“Finally, if I still didn’t agree that tracking the geolocations and reading behavior of unwitting people was deceptive, I’d wear it on my sleeve,” Davidson wrote, pointing at another tweet that asked Superhuman supporters to update their email signatures.

He said he got no takers.

Mike Davidson is currently VP of partnerships and community at InVision, makers of design prototyping software. Read his complete post at Mike Industries.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline

Comments

Job Listings on GeekWork

Digital Marketing ManagerSeattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority (RTA)
Senior UI DesignerALLEN INSTITUTE FOR ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI2)
Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.