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LinkedIn Protects Email Addresses in Latest Export Update

Tech

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LinkedIn’s latest stealth change to privacy settings protects user email addresses but stymies companies and brands seeking to build their databases.

If your brand or company relies strongly on LinkedIn connections to contact prospective leads via email, your efforts have hit a roadblock in recent weeks…whether you know it or not.

A TechCrunch reader alerted the publication to this quiet change, in which exported data archives no longer feature user email addresses. The change can be traced back to a new default setting for user email. The platform asks, “Allow your connections to download your email in their data export? If no, your personal email address will not be included when your connections export data from LinkedIn.” The site defaults this toggle response to “no,” protecting the individual user’s contact information. This is good news for privacy-minded users, but presents challenges for businesses, recruiters, and other entities who depended on LinkedIn as a source for email addresses.

At a time when our personal data feels all too vulnerable, this should be a newsworthy announcement for the professional networking platform—especially given recent high profile breaches from competitors like Facebook and Google. However, two sets of circumstances may have impacted LinkedIn’s decision to keep this newest change secret. First, the company is embroiled in its own scandal. News surfaced of 18 million non-member email addresses used to target prospective LinkedIn users with Facebook ads, in an audit period ending just a day before GDPR took effect. This revelation, unearthed by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission and “amicably resolved” between the company and DPC, represents a data usage violation that paints LinkedIn in a bad light.

LinkedIn has since ceased the practice, and responded to the story with a statement from TechCrunch that stated “the strong processes and procedures we have in place were not followed and for that we are sorry. We’ve taken appropriate action, and have improved the way we work to ensure that this will not happen again.” One could wonder if the heightened protection of their own users’ addresses isn’t a reactive move to their own past transgressions.

Second, and closely related to the first revelation: few users are aware that their email addresses could have been accessed by their connections in that fashion. TechCrunch’s Josh Constine points out, “perhaps LinkedIn didn’t want to bring attention to the fact that it was allowing your email address to be slurped up by anyone you’re connected with, given the current media climate of intense scrutiny regarding privacy in social tech.” To bring such a longstanding practice up now, after news they’ve made others vulnerable, could prove even more detrimental from a PR perspective. And yet LinkedIn may find itself in an unwinnable position: by hiding this change to user privacy, they risk drawing the ire of folks who relied on this archive capability to build their customer bases or recruitment pools.

As it currently stands, the default setting for users is to protect this vital contact information from those seeking to collate it from their networks. To make your address available for such data collection (though TechCrunch correctly notes the LinkedIn help center provides little information for why one would want to do this), one need only toggle the setting by navigating to Settings & Privacy -> Privacy -> Who Can See My Email Address?

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