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Evernote wants to review your notes to improve its machine learning

Evernote wants to review your notes to improve its machine learning


But you can opt out

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Evernote slightly botched its latest privacy policy release, leaving users worried about spying engineers invading their privacy. Now the company is trying to quell concerns. Evernote’s new privacy policy, which it unveiled yesterday, states that Evernote employees sometimes review users’ notes in an effort to improve the company’s machine learning capabilities. Users weren’t happy about this change.

In response, Evernote CEO Chris O’Neill published a note today about the policy update. He clarifies how employees only view random notes to improve machine learning without any idea who they belong to, and that machines censor personal details. Users can also opt out of machine learning features, like automatically created to-do lists and travel itineraries, which effectively stops information sharing, too.

The company notes in its privacy policy that employees are still able to review user content in response to law enforcement requests, and that many other companies comply with these requests as well. This is true.

Like other internet companies, we must comply with legal requirements such as responding to a warrant, investigating violations of our Terms of Service such as reports of harmful or illegal content, and troubleshooting at the request of users. The number of employees who are authorized to view this content is extremely limited by our existing policies, and I am personally involved in defining them.

Multiple companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, release transparency reports in which they detail the types of requests they’ve received from law enforcement. Evernote publishes one yearly. That said, Evernote doesn’t encrypt users’ notes by default, which makes them viewable to employees or hackers, if they ever compromised the company. Evernote does encrypt messages in-transit, but that still allows them to be readable on the company’s servers. If notes were end-to-end encrypted by default, no one would be able to access them, unless they managed to compromise an account password or had cooperation from an account owner.

Concerned users can create encrypted sections in their notes that are protected by a unique password and are unreadable by Evernote. As Evernote writes on its security page:

We never receive a copy of this key or your passphrase and don’t use any escrow mechanism to recover your encrypted data. This means that if you forget your passphrase, we cannot recover your data.

Even if law enforcement made a request for specific note content, Evernote wouldn’t be able to fork them over without user compliance. For reference, look at Apple’s encryption fight last year in which law enforcement wanted to view the content stored on a terrorist’s iPhone. Apple said it couldn’t comply because it didn’t know the phone’s password to unlock it.

Evernote users shouldn’t be upset about the company reviewing their notes when it receives a legal warrant or to help in optional machine learning, but they should voice concern over the company not having end-to-end encryption enabled by default.