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These 5 popular productivity tools have hidden risks

Before you download any of these supposedly revolutionary timesaving apps, you might want to read this.

These 5 popular productivity tools have hidden risks
[Photo: Mauricio Alejo]

Smart Speakers

Launched: 2014–2016

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Reach: An estimated 66 million Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod units were in use in the U.S. at the end of 2018

The promise: Voice assistants have been lauded for their ability to make you more productive at home or work, letting you do everything from scheduling calendar appointments and reminders to setting distraction-busting timers.

The peril: There have been at least three reports of people from Amazon, Apple, and Google listening to bits of captured audio for the sake of quality control. Also, law enforcement could ask all three firms for voice-recording data to help solve crimes. (The companies say they comply when required to through a subpoena or search warrant.)

Apple Walkie-Talkie

Launched: 2018 on Apple Watch

Reach: An estimated 22.5 million units shipped last year

The promise: The Walkie-Talkie app for Apple Watch serves as a lo-fi alternative to texts, Slack messages, DMs, or (God forbid) face-to-face chats. Just enter your contacts and get the conversation started.

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The peril: Apple was temporarily forced to disable Walkie-Talkie in July 2019 after a bug was revealed that could have let eavesdroppers listen in on people’s conversations. Apple pushed out a fix, but if the idea of snoopers gives you the creeps, an app where you talk out loud to friends might give you pause anyway.

Dropbox

Launched: 2008; updated in 2019

Reach: 13.6 million paying users as of mid-2019

The promise: After years of operating in your computer’s background, quietly syncing your data and letting you store and share files in a personal cloud, Dropbox has an app of its own, which can integrate with G Suite, Slack, and Zoom.

The peril: Dropbox was criticized by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden for lax encryption. The new Dropbox forces users to allow themselves to be tracked across the web if they want to use its Google Docs integration. Plus, a security engineer discovered that sharing a Dropbox Paper doc publicly allows anyone to see the email of anyone who has ever opened the file.

Superhuman

Launched: TBD. It’s currently an invitation-only app.

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Reach: A waiting list of 245,000

The promise: For $30 a month, users get a sleek email service that offers data from LinkedIn and other platforms about the people you email, an “unsend” feature, info on when your message was read, and “the fastest email experience ever made.”

The peril: The service not only told users when a recipient opened an email but also the recipient’s approximate location at the time he or she opened it. Although Superhuman turned off location tracking, it still enabled users to surveil how recipients interacted with messages, without the recipient’s consent.

Zoom

Launched: 2011

Reach: 66,300 enterprise customers that have more than 10 full-time employees

The promise: Zoom is today’s go-to videoconferencing platform and a lifeline for remote workers, requiring just an email address to sign up. Best of all, the app is free for group calls under 40 minutes, which helps keep meetings efficient.

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The peril: In July, a security flaw was reported in Zoom for Mac: Attackers could hijack people’s webcams by tricking users into clicking a meeting link they sent. (What makes Zoom so easy to use is that each meeting gets its own URL.) It was also found that Zoom installed a web server on users’ computers, creating a security risk.

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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About the author

Christopher Zara is a news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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