Two weeks after Buzzfeed News purportedly found President Joe Biden’s Venmo account using the app’s search tool and public friends feature, promptly setting off cybersecurity and national security alarm bells, Venmo has given users the ability to make their friends list private.
The change to one of Venmo’s most criticized features over the years, which was spotted by BuzzFeed News and app researcher Jane Manchun Wong on Friday, allows users to make their friends list public, friends-only, or private. With these new privacy settings, one would hope that people like President Biden, or anyone else for that matter, will be harder to find on the PayPal-owned app.
Until now, Venmo was the only major social network with a contact-based friends list that could not be made private, according to Buzzfeed. When users sign up for Venmo, they’re asked to give the app permission to access the contacts on their phone in order to automatically add those contacts to the friends list. (This is not required, although some have criticized the app for appearing to make contact sharing mandatory).
The list, along with the app’s built-in search tool, reportedly allowed the outlet to find Biden’s Venmo profile after less than 10 minutes of searching. Buzzfeed was motivated to search for Biden’s account after the New York Times published an article on the president that included a passing mention that he sent his grandchildren money using Venmo. Buzzfeed also found what appeared to be the Venmo accounts for first lady Jill Biden, almost a dozen members of the Biden family, and senior White House officials.
A Venmo spokesperson confirmed the new privacy feature to Gizmodo on Saturday.
“We’re consistently evolving and strengthening the Venmo platform for all of our customers. As part of these ongoing efforts, we have added in-app controls providing customers an option to select a public, friends-only, or private setting for their friends list,” the spokesperson said. “We look forward to continuing to provide customers with a seamless payments experience.”
In an article on its help center, Venmo also confirmed that it would now include an “Appear in other users’ friends list” button. It added that users that choose not to appear in other users’ friends lists won’t appear even if their friends have chosen different privacy settings.
As noted by Buzzfeed, people could use the information about someone’s friends on Venmo to map out their activities, which may enable stalking and put them in danger. This information could also reveal other types of sensitive information, such as who a therapist’s patients are.
Although this is a welcome and long overdue change from Venmo, it deserves to be analyzed further. Wong points out that as of Friday, the privacy setting for Venmo’s friends list was public by default. To be clear, Venmo is not the only social platform that employs public as a default—Twitter and Instagram do too, for example—but given its particularities, such as its contacts-based friends list and the fact that it deals with money, it might be best to rethink that to ensure privacy and safety.
At the very least, it should explain the risks of making your friends list public and let users make an informed choice for themselves.