Venmo, PayPal’s mobile payments app, announced on Tuesday that it is ending the global view — the feed where you could see transactions not just between your friends, but those between complete strangers.
The global view was accessed via a globe icon on the feed page that showed a stream of random strangers’ public payments when you clicked on it. The icon will now disappear as part of an overall app redesign that more prominently shows debit and crypto features. The update will roll out to all users over the next few weeks.
This is a welcome move by Venmo that addresses a longstanding, and glaring, privacy flaw: Nobody needs or wants to see transactions of people they don’t know.
However, this doesn’t mean there’s no more public transactions — there’s just no central feed in the app. If you navigate to someone’s profile who isn’t your friend, you’ll still be able to see their public transactions.
The change is the latest move the company has made to address privacy after BuzzFeed News revealed how trivially easy it was to find President Joe Biden’s personal Venmo account through the public Friends Lists. Following BuzzFeed News’ report, Venmo made it possible to change your Friends List to private or friends only. However, Friends Lists are still public by default — you have to go into your settings and opt out (here’s how).
A representative for Venmo pointed to the company’s public blog post in response to a request for comment.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that [removing the global feed] is a massive, massive improvement,” said Gennie Gebhart of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Gebhart said that the EFF and Mozilla Foundation have been advocating for years to have Venmo get rid of its public feed and make the Friends Lists private, and she is optimistic about this change.
“There is a way back, Venmo,” Gebhart said. “There is a way to privacy if you want to make it happen.”
Now Venmo has one last huge change to make if it wants to actually give people full control: It needs to make privacy the default setting for Friends Lists and transactions. That way, people can actively choose whether to share this information, rather than the company leaving the onus on the users to turn public sharing off.
Currently, when a new person signs up for Venmo, the default setting is that all transactions will be public to their friends, as will their list of friends itself. You can change these settings, but people often never changes to their default preferences and may not even realize or understand what the privacy implications are.
In its blog post announcing the change, PayPal wrote, “Venmo has always been social at its core, designed to be a place where friends can split and share payments and experiences.” That’s reasonable and true. When it first launched, Venmo filled a gap in American mobile payments (many other countries already had mobile payments through banks) and quickly became the go-to way for people to, for example, split the check for dinner or pay their share of bills.
“Would you share your credit card statement with your friends? Probably not, because that's incredibly antisocial behavior.”
But thanks to the public nature of the Friends List feed, people with dubious or outright malicious intentions could surveil their friends or exes to see what they were up to — the things you pay for are a window into your overall activity. Nevertheless, many people seemed to enjoy the social aspect of the feature, even if they knew it was creepy and sometimes damaging. In the years that followed, Venmo’s payments feed would lead to people being arrested, stalked, and harassed as well as getting a divorce. Venmo exposed sensitive transactions between individual clients and professionals such as as therapists or sex workers.
But even for mundane transactions, the idea of a social feed of payment history is fraught. “Would you share your credit card statement with your friends? Probably not, because that's incredibly antisocial behavior,” said Gebhart.
In 2018, PayPal was dinged by the FTC for not doing enough to protect Venmo users’ security and privacy. After that, it made some changes to privacy settings, like making the app easier to navigate and allowing people to retroactively change all of their old transactions to private. But there were still huge issues. For years, privacy advocates have been urging Venmo to adopt private by default for transactions and the Friends Lists.
Privacy by default means the company is serious about respecting its users, not hoping they won’t notice or be too lazy to bother changing the settings after they sign up.
Slapping a social network onto a financial app may have been the hottest trend of 2012, but nine years later, people expect more from a big company like PayPal. We expect our financial apps to give us privacy and to make that privacy clear and obvious.