Essays on Technology and Culture

Online Services and The Calculus of Trust

When choosing what apps and services I use, the level of trust I have in the company is weighing heavier and heavier in the calculus. That level of trust is based on a number of factors ranging from trust in the quality of a product, its potential longevity, and—increasingly—whether I can trust it with my personal data.

The trust factor came into sharp focus for me when I tried out Readdle’s new email app, Spark. While it’s a gorgeous, powerful app that I want to like, there’s two things about it that gave me pause. The first is that Readdle stores my login credentials on their server, giving them full access to my email accounts, even beyond the standard Google APIs. The second is that, not long after setting up the app, Readdle had signed me up for an email newsletter.

Readdle claims their server back-end has stronger encryption than Google’s gMail server, and that the email newsletter sign up was a mistake. I’m sure both are true, but they were two very large strikes against the product. [1] It’s possible Readdle can make up for their mistake and prove that they’re worthy of my trust, but until then, I will not be using their app.

The situation around Spark storing login information is similar to the launch of Mailbox, which also had similar security concerns. I refused to use the app until it was acquired by Dropbox, which I did trust—at the time. Since then, Dropbox has made decisions that have me questioning the trust I placed in them, and now I’m using iCloud Drive more, and Dropbox less. I don’t use Mailbox at all anymore, and have settled on sticking with the gMail web interface on my Mac, and Dispatch on my iPhone.

Most services and apps I use rest somewhere along a spectrum of trust and utility, much like Dropbox. Any service below a certain threshold, I will not use. Facebook is just on the “will use” side of that threshold. I wouldn’t trust it any further than I could throw Mark Zuckerberg—he may be small, but I’m not very strong—but since almost everyone in my life is on Facebook, I’m sort of stuck. Apple services I trust almost whole-heartedly. While they’re not known for their reliability, that aspect is improving. Sure, Apple services are free, save for extra iCloud storage, I trust Apple not to go peeking to sell my data to advertisers. They made their money when I bought the hardware.

The exception is Google, and I’ve been looking at my Google usage with a more skeptical eye after reading Marco Arment and John Gruber’s recent posts on why they don’t trust Google. I’m not a fan of Google poking through my email, though I use gMail anyway. I put up with it because gMail is the best free solution for email out there, especially in terms of integrations and app support.

In the past year, however, I’ve been moving away from Google as my trust of them wanes. With the release of Yosemite and iOS 8, I switched to using DuckDuckGo as my primary search engine. I only use Google Maps on my desktop when I need transit directions. I use Google Chrome only for sites that require Flash, or as my browser for day job related tasks. [2] This leaves gMail and Hangouts. I’m tied in and comfortable, and don’t think I’ll switch yet, but I have updated various online accounts that use my gMail address to my email, in case I decide to jump ship after all. $40 a year for Fastmail doesn’t seem terrible.

You can say “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product” all you want. It doesn’t change that many of the best, or at least most useful services on the Internet are ones you pay for in data instead of money. If you’re getting enough back from the trust you put into those services to respect you as a user, to keep your data secure, and to keep you happy, then it’s time to find greener pastures—even if you have to pay for it.

And that’s the other part of the trust problem that often gets ignored in these discussions: not everyone can afford to use services they can trust. At least in the United States, you can pay quite a bit just for an Internet connection. I’ve paid, on average, $35/mo for home Internet, and another $90/mo for cell service (with voice and texting). That adds up to $1,500 a year for connectivity. I’m gainfully employed, and live in an area with decent enough options for Internet service. For many people, that’s more than they can reasonably afford—and asking them to drop more on top of that for the nebulous benefit of “trust” is pushing it. It’s a point I’ve made before, but bears repeating.

  1. A third, less egregious strike was a lack of support for gMail aliases, which makes the app fairly useless for me. I was so impressed with the quality of Spark that I wanted to keep using it, but the security and trust issues forced my hand.  ↩

  2. My job uses Google Apps for many things, and I don’t really care about Google peeking in on my work stuff. It’s not like IT isn’t doing that already.  ↩