Venmo has helped me figure out who my friend’s cocaine dealer is. It has helped me figure out when my ex’s new relationships start crumbling. For a long time, I’ve known it as a hidden treasure trove of the intimate secrets that friends thought they could keep private.
Now, even scientists are recognizing the potential of Venmo’s public data. A new research project, titled Public by Default, examines how much personal data Venmo users — from drug dealers to fighting couples — unknowingly share with the world.
The project is named after the setting that makes Venmo a goldmine of private information: every single one of your transactions is publicly visible unless you change the settings yourself.
Berlin-based researcher Hang Do Thi Duc performed the study by analyzing the more than 200 million public Venmo transactions made last year. If users hadn’t taken the extra effort to change their privacy settings, Do Thi Doc could see their names, the dates of their transactions, and all the messages sent with their payment.
Needless to say, there were plenty of innocent exchanges labeled “money for drugs,” and plenty of drug exchanges labeled as something innocent.
Do Thi Doc focused in on the stories of a few remarkable users, including a weed dealer, a man who sells corn from a food cart, a couple of dramatic lovers, and a woman with a ridiculously unhealthy diet.
The weed dealer stuck out because he wasn’t particularly cautious. He had 920 incoming transactions, most of them peppered with pill and tree emojis or labeled “weed,” “grass,” medicine,” “CBD,” “kush” or “gorilla cookie.”
The dramatic couple had a habit of bringing their flirtations, fights, threats and apologies onto the social media platform. “You don’t love me,” one exchange would read. Another: “I know we have things to take care of but you should try to show more affection and kiss me at least.”
The woman with the abysmal diet had 2,033 transactions in eight months’ time. She drank gallons of Coca Cola (280 transactions), ate mountains of pizza (209 transactions), and spent a small fortune on coffee dates with the same three friends. She also buys a bunch of junk from behind the bakery window — especially donuts.
Do Thi Doc came to the conclusion that all this intimate information shouldn’t be so accessible to her. So naturally, she published it — to highlight the privacy risks of using a seemingly innocuous payment app.
I know where she's coming from. When I stumbled upon my friends’ secrets, I wasn’t actively seeking out their drug deals and their break-ups. It was just absent-mindedly scrolling, a recognition of patterns, and an easy game of connect-the-dots.
And if I can make sense of senseless Venmo transactions, just imagine what an ultra-powerful social media company can do. So put your settings on private or pay your drug dealers in Beanie Babies, you fools.