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Slack alters privacy policy to let bosses read your messages

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A necessary trade-off for selling to big companies

Slack, the fast-growing workplace communication toolannounced today that it will begin selling a new tier of service in January aimed at large enterprises. Slack Plus, as the tier is called, will offer a handful of new tools aimed at system administrators. But there’s one feature every Slack user needs to know about: companies that subscribe to the Plus plan will be able to request every message that employees have sent on the service from that point forward, including direct messages to coworkers and a history of any changes you made to your messages.

Slack has revised its privacy policy to accommodate the new feature, which it says was requested by businesses that are legally obligated to retain employee communications. (The revisions are worth reading for anyone who manages a Slack team; among other things, it now requires you to waive your right to a jury trial in favor of binding arbitration if you ever have reason to sue the company.)

Slack now has 300,000 daily users on 40,000 teams

Every enterprise software startup eventually courts big companies, which generally have the most money to spend. But few have done it as quickly as Slack, which launched in February and now has 300,000 daily users on 40,000 teams. Its earliest users were small teams, but Slack is now used at Amazon, Walmart, AOL, and ESPN, among other places. (Also: The Verge.)

But large enterprises, particularly in highly regulated industries like banking and finance, generally won’t buy cloud software unless it meets a long list of criteria. Some industries require companies to store all employee communications, including emails and instant messages, in case of future litigation. For those companies to use Slack, Slack had to build a way for them to access employee messages.

slack for desktop

For many of us, the idea of a boss (or a federal court) reading all our old chats with co-workers can send a shiver down the spine. Slack knows this, and the system it built tries to balance your expectations of privacy with the fact that, legally, employers do own your workplace communication. Slack won’t offer a "god mode" view of the service that lets a boss snoop on your conversations in real time — but it will let team owners request the entire archive of your team’s conversations.

So here’s how it works. First, none of the messages you’ve sent on Slack to date fall under the new policy; the company will only start tracking them on Jan. 1st. Second, "compliance exports," as the new feature is known, is available only to teams that pay for the new tier of service that will become available in January. And third, exports aren’t available by default — companies have to jump through a series of hoops to request them, including sending a snail-mail letter on company letterhead requesting access. "It’s like having a waiting period before you buy a gun," says Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s founder and CEO.

"It's like having a waiting period before you buy a gun."

If your boss does request compliance exports, you’ll be notified within Slack when it happens. Your boss can’t request chat logs for individuals; the export is a single bulk file of every communication sent on the team. "We’re being up front with users when this feature is enabled, which isn’t always the case with all the communication tools you use in a work place," says Anne Toth, Slack’s vice president for policy and compliance strategy. I asked Butterfield for a recommendation on which software I should use to safely complain about my boss; he laughed and declined to offer a suggestion. But he says he expects only a small fraction of Slack teams will request compliance exports.

Toth joined the company seven weeks ago; its number of users has grown 50 percent since then. "Slack creates essentially a virtual water cooler for a lot of distributed workspaces," she says. "In the real world, you know if your boss was standing there behind you. We’re helping people be thoughtful about the communications they’re having, by giving them information about who’s able to access those conversations."