Andy Rubin’s company gave my favorite email app a scary privacy policy

By Jared Newman

Before it officially shut down last fall, one of the best things about the email app Newton was that it didn’t come with any targeted advertising or data mining. For $50 per year, you got not just an excellent email experience, but reassurance that your privacy wasn’t being violated.

On Tuesday, Newton relaunched its app after being acquired in December by Essential, the struggling startup run by former Android boss Andy Rubin. Along with a few minor feature updates, the latest version of Newton includes a new privacy policy. And compared to the old one, it’s much worse.

For reference, here’s what the “In a Nutshell” section of Newton’s old privacy policy said, as of December:

All the information we collect from you is only used to give you the best possible experience using Newton. We don’t run ads inside the product or sell data to make money. We’ve built a good product and charge our users a subscription to run the business.

Newton still charges $50 per year, but that section of the privacy policy is now gone. The new policy, updated on February 4, gives Newton latitude to show targeted ads and build a detailed profile of your online activity. It also has an unusual clause about collecting data from the people you email.

Update: An Essential representative says Newton is not collecting any new information, and that the “privacy policy changes reflect our effort to have consistent privacy policies across Essential brands.” That’s mildly comforting, but the issue isn’t so much the collection of data–which, after all, is required to run the service–as what Essential plans to do with it. Asked if Essential will be using information from Newton users to target ads, the rep said there are “no plans to do so.” (I would feel better if the answer was “No.”) The rest of the original story follows below.

After specifying all the types of information it collects, Newton’s new policy says it can use information in several ways related to ads and marketing. It reserves the right to:

    “Communicate with you about products, services, offers, promotions, rewards, and events offered by us and others and provide news and information we think will be of interest to you”

    “Facilitate contests, sweepstakes, and promotions and process and deliver entries and rewards”

    “Personalize and improve our products and services and provide advertisements, content, and features that match user profiles or interests”

In case that wasn’t bad enough, the policy also suggests that it might use your information to target ads on Facebook:

We may work with third-party social platforms, such as Facebook, to serve ads to you as part of a customized campaign, unless you notify us that you prefer not to have information about you used in this way by sending an email to indicating the email address you wish to have removed from customized ad campaigns.

The new policy also makes clear that it will combine personal data from Newton with outside sources, making me wonder if Newton will turn to data brokers to build a more complete profile of its users. One part of this policy seems especially creepy (emphasis mine):

We may also obtain information from other sources and combine that with information we collect through our Services. For example, we collect information about you from those who correspond with you via email, or from third-party service providers who share certain profile information about you, or we may collect information about you when you post content to our pages or feeds on third-party social media sites.

Keep in mind that Newton isn’t just an IMAP email app that passes along messages from an email provider such as Gmail or an Exchange server. To provide better syncing and extra features such as read receipts, Newton creates a copy of the user’s emails and stores them on its own servers, along with contacts and calendar info. In other words, Newton will have access to a trove of personal data that it could potentially mine for targeted ads. (I’ve reached out to Newton and Essential for comment.)

I probably should have seen this coming. When Essential confirmed to TechCrunch a couple of months ago that it was acquiring Newton, the company only offered a vague statement about its plans. (“We are always on the lookout for companies with great technology and talent to help accelerate our product roadmap.”) Meanwhile, Essential’s smartphone was a flop, its attempt at a smart home AI device is dead, and Rubin himself has faced allegations of sexual misconduct during his time at Google. This is not the ideal steward for a once-cool indie email app.

As for why Newton sold in the first place, the catalyst seemed to be the acquisition of Newton’s incubator, a database management company called Webyog, by a B2B software holding company called Idera. Founder Rohit Nadhani said last year that there just wasn’t enough profitability or growth to justify keeping the lights on.

Oddly enough, Newton never actually stopped working after its official shutdown in September. All this time, I’ve remained a happy user, hoping that the company had found its beloved email app a better home. Now I’m starting to wish Newton had just shuttered for good.

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