Some Smartphone Apps Access Users’ Contact Lists

July 15, 2021

Those who have concerns about privacy on smartphones often focus on apps that track users’ internet browsing history or even their movements through GPS. But while such violations of privacy are becoming more well-known to users, many others appear to be unaware that some apps have open access to their contact lists. For instance, therapist Gabriela Buendia was shocked to discover that the payment app Venmo had shared a list of her phone contacts as well as data about everyone who had ever paid her through the app.

While this would be an unfortunate realization for many people, it especially upset Buendia since she puts so much effort into safeguarding her clients’ information. “It feels like I need to protect that data,” she said. “I’ve just been trained that way.” Not only do contact lists contain personal information such as phone numbers and addresses, these digital rolodexes can also include notes with sensitive data such as social security numbers and bank account details. “Address books are incredibly valuable in terms of revealing information about us to others,” said Ashkan Soltani, who previously worked as chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission. 

Along with Venmo, other apps that share contact lists include Facebook, Wayfair, Chase bank, and even the app for Samsung’s smart washer. Since apps only need to ask for permission once to share valuable information, many people are unaware that their data could potentially be compromised. Venmo recently allowed users to opt out of sharing their contact lists, but it is unclear how many users know about this recent decision by the company. “Consumers shouldn’t have to dig through their settings and opt in to their privacy, said Kaili Lambe of the Internet advocacy organization Mozilla. “It should be the baseline. It should be when the product is shipped, not something you go back to.”


  1. Do you think apps like Venmo and Facebook should be able to share their users’ contact lists? Why or why not?
  2. What are the potential advantages and disadvantages of Venmo’s recent decision to allow users to opt out of sharing their contact lists?

Source: Heather Kelly, “Lots of Apps Use Your Personal Contacts. Few Will Tell You What They Do With Them,” The Washington Post, July 15, 2021. Photo by Berto.