Most who have used the Yassify Bot created by Vox founder Ezra Klein probably did not know they were doing something illegal. They didn’t know they were breaking the law, but now they do, because Yassify Bot was discovered to have been in violation of state and federal privacy laws.
If Klein thought, “All we need to do is use automated software to make sure we don’t accidentally share any personally identifiable information with people,” that is clearly incorrect. There is a federal law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, that says companies must protect personal information. It also requires services to maintain records of Americans’ sensitive personal information. That means companies such as Yassify—that harvest information from public Internet search results—may be violating federal law. But not knowing the law is not necessarily a crime, so Klein doesn’t have to worry that he will go to jail for doing something that is bad.
But what if he wants to do something bad? What if he wants to send out an anonymous creepy picture of a woman in a lingerie outfit? It seems like a violation of the privacy law Klein claims he does not have. It seems like an invasion of privacy. That’s why the Yassify code was apparently changed before the company launched to make it mandatory that the user agree to these privacy terms before they could use the software. I’m not suggesting that some sort of morality code has been enacted that even involves sexual harassment, but I do suggest that Klein knows the law, is aware of what the law says, and is not willing to abide by the laws. And he is not the only person who runs afoul of the laws that are in place to protect people’s privacy. Just last month, Gawker ran into this sort of violation because it accepted donations from an actor who was found to have been posting sexualized images of women on 4chan in a group chat. And while it’s legal for someone to screenshot a screenshot of your address, it’s not legal for someone to send you that same address by private message without your consent. This is just about saying the internet will inform you what you are doing.
As for me, there’s no question that Yassify is trying to help people perform research. It literally tells the user they have enough information in their profile that they are about to perform a research study on yourself. I say this is helpful because it will help you research others and discover things about yourself that you might have learned previously. In my opinion, all that is new and useful. What they are also doing is trying to cash in on the popularity of “likes,” by offering to give users a double wishbone to flaunt with the same amount of “likes” they received before. I don’t find this offensive. What annoys me is that it’s the same functionality that’s used by the Whisper app, to quote Marc Gene Sterne, a professor at Harvard Business School. He is worried about “secret sauce” in the apps because the data used to perform these apps is private. “The key insight is that once it’s out there, it’s a bit harder to capture” Sterne told me. “But we haven’t figured out what the tipping point is yet.” By gathering data like this and giving it to a third party, the Whisper app likely has access to that data. It’s not in their hands. So if those users are among the thousands of people who clicked yes to the Yassify Bot, it’s possible that they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong.
Without knowing everything that is available to the app by way of data, there’s a chance that the users will not realize that their information is being used. Or just that they’ll never hear about it. If, however, the user finds that their information has been used for an inappropriate purpose, they should contact authorities to report the violation.
I do not hate Ezra Klein. Not at all. But I do believe that the more people use these types of apps, the more we become aware of their potential harm.