Evernote's New Privacy Policy Will Let Employees Spy on You

Editors' Note: Evernote has since backed off changing its privacy policy; you can read the report on Evernote's decision here. This article was originally published on Dec. 14. We updated it on Dec. 15 to add Evernote CEO Chris O'Neill's comments on the privacy policy.

If you're an Evernote user who cares about keeping your notes away from prying eyes, you might not be happy with a change the service is planning to make to its privacy policy. Evernote announced on Dec. 14 that it's updating its policy in January to allow employees to look at user account content.

Evernote says it's making this change on Jan. 23, 2017, in the name of improving its service. Specifically, the company wants to boost the performance of its machine learning tool and it apparently need human eyes to make sure that tool is working properly.

"The latest update to the Privacy Policy allows some Evernote employees to exercise oversight of machine learning technologies applied to account content...for the purposes of developing and improving the Evernote service," Evernote said in a statement. "This is primarily to make sure that our machine learning technologies are working correctly, in order to surface the most relevant content and features to you."

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In a follow-up blog post today (Dec. 15), Evernote CEO Chris O'Neill clarified that "Evernote employees do not view the content of user notes except in very limited cases... 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."

O'Neill didn't back away from the proposed privacy policy changes, saying that he believes machine learning will be critical to improving Evernote as "Evernote data scientists need to do spot checks as they develop the technology."

"If you choose to participate in these experimental features, you’ll enjoy a more personalized experience," O'Neill wrote. "Select Evernote employees may see random content to ensure the features are working properly but they won’t know who it belongs to. They’ll only see the snippet they’re checking. Not only that, but if a machine identifies any personal information, it will mask it from the employee."

While Evernote didn't initially specify all of the data its employees might be able to see, the service — which allows users to create notes and sync them across devices — has caught some flak from users worried about their privacy. Those users have said that notes are private and shouldn't be accessible to anyone. In turn, many users have taken to Twitter, Reddit, and other online forums to say they're leaving Evernote for another service.

Evernote might have had a sense that its users wouldn't like what it had to announce and delivered an FAQ. Many of those questions try to address concerns, with one saying, "I really don't like this change and don't want Evernote employees to see my notes. What are my options?"

Evernote's answer to that question might not assuage fears. The company said it will offer an option in its account settings to turn off its ability to access user data. But even that opt-out is limited, as there appears to be a way for employees to still access user data after the opt-out has been turned on.

"If you do opt out, however, you may not be able to get the most out of your Evernote experience," Evernote said. "And please note that you cannot opt out of employees looking at your content for other reasons stated in our Privacy Policy." Those reasons include Evernote complying with court orders and protecting against spam and malware.

To further bolster its argument, Evernote said that it's keeping the number of employees who can see user data "as small as possible." The company added that it won't sell user data or serve ads based on the note content, but did say it could "use your information to notify you about features we believe will help you get the most out of Evernote."

If you're among the Evernote users not pleased with this change, you could consider alternative note-taking apps. And our sister site Laptop has instructions on how to export your notes from Evernote.

Don Reisinger is CEO and founder of D2 Tech Agency. A communications strategist, consultant, and copywriter, Don has also written for many leading technology and business publications including CNET, Fortune Magazine, The New York Times, Forbes, Computerworld, Digital Trends, TechCrunch and Slashgear. He has also written for Tom's Guide for many years, contributing hundreds of articles on everything from phones to games to streaming and smart home.