Off Brand

Why Every CEO Needs to Think Like a Hacker, Stalker, or White Nationalist

It’s 2019. Every product should be built with bad actors in mind.

Rob Walker
Marker
Published in
5 min readSep 9, 2019

--

An illustration of mysterious characters surrounding several electronic devices.
Illustration: Tom Guilmard

FFans of the buzzy young startup Superhuman, a $30 a month premium email product, rave about its speed and clever, feature-rich design. But recently one of those features proved controversial: a supercharged “read receipt” ability showing users when recipients of their missives had opened them, how many times, and from what state or country.

Recipients likely had no idea this was happening, and no easy way of opting out if they did. You can probably also imagine why one might not want any given emailer to know whether you’ve opened any given message, and where you were when you did. Late this past June, software veteran Mike Davidson wrote a sharp critique detailing this use of “hidden tracking pixels,” pointing out ways in which the data could be misused by, say, a hostile ex or other stalker-y type, and charged: “Superhuman Is Spying on You.”

Soon Rahul Vohra, Superhuman’s founder and chief executive officer, who had sold his previous company to LinkedIn, announced some changes. Conceding that location data could be used for “nefarious purposes,” he wrote that it would no longer be tracked or revealed to users. Separately, the read-status feature would be turned off by default (although it could be reactivated by a Superhuman user). “I am so very sorry for this,” the University of Cambridge alum wrote. “When we built Superhuman, we focused only on the needs of our customers. We did not consider potential bad actors.”

The problem is that digital design isn’t cynical enough.

Some (including Davidson) didn’t find that satisfactory. But set aside the specific case of Superhuman, or even the deeper question of privacy, for a minute. Think instead about the broader implications of that last statement: We did not consider potential bad actors.

There’s something weirdly clarifying about this absurdly weak defense. The typical critique of large tech companies and digital design is that it is manipulative, the product of puppet masters who know how to addict and control us. It is powerful — and…

--

--