This Bumbling New Start-Up Helps Conservative Websites Store User Names, Postal Addresses of Anonymous ReadersLatest
Illustration: Jim Cooke
Recently, Jezebel received a curious email from someone who identified themselves as a co-founder of GetEmails.com, “an all new audience growth tool for publishers.” The technology, we were told, could identify anonymous visitors to a website by providing publications like us with the names, email address, and, incredibly, home addresses of over a third of the people who were reading our stuff on any given day.
In fact, the email continued, some publishers had already taken advantage of this opportunity. These clients supposedly included The Daily Caller, the right-wing website founded by Tucker Carlson with a history of publishing articles written by white nationalists; the hyper-conservative “misinformation mill” Western Journal; and a trade publication focusing on stocks.
The tool was promoted as a way for publications to retain readers by sending unsolicited newsletters or subscription offers to people who may have visited their sites but neglected to provide a point of contact. But it struck us as ominous that a website might keep a database of visitors’ emails and postal addresses, presumably without their knowledge, and odd that the publications opting to do so would appear to be mostly right-wing. Startups have a tendency to exaggerate their client list, but by taking a look at the websites’ source code and Built With, a website that indexes what’s embedded in a given website, we confirmed that the sites listed in the email we received had been using Get Emails as of late July.
The Daily Caller, which didn’t return a request for comment, had 3.5 million unique visitors last month, according to Similar Web. If up to a third of a website’s readership was being captured and logged, as Get Emails claims in its marketing material, that could be over a million names, email addresses, and postal addresses every month, an incredibly valuable database of people with very specific political views. The Caller, Get Emails’ founders later told us, love their service. They’ve been using it for a few months.
The sprawling universe of advertising technology has developed all kinds of ways to track user behavior. That said, what Get Emails is offering goes somewhat beyond industry standards. Zach Edwards, the founder of the analytics firm Victory Medium, called the type of re-identification that Get Emails offers “outrageous” and “extremely uncommon.”
“They are using a dangerous loophole in the U.S,” he said.
While Get Emails says it’s most interested in applying the tool for e-commerce and marketing, from a privacy standpoint, this kind of technology does feel wildly invasive. It isn’t hard to imagine a political campaign being interested in obtaining a list of all the addresses of people who consume posts about, in the Western Journals’ case, Mexican politicians threatening to take over U.S. states or Democrats voting to impose Sharia Law; theoretically, taken to an extreme conclusion, this technology could track visitors to controversial websites and glean personal information that could be used to doxx them or keep tabs on where they are.
“When someone finally understands what Get Emails is the first question they ask is, ‘How is this legal?”
But this hasn’t appeared to have occurred to the people behind Get Emails, a pair of goofy tech types who split time between Austin, Texas, and Aspen, Colorado and consider their product a simple issue of supply and demand. The inclusion of home addresses, they tell us, was mostly an afterthought, a snippet of data they offered simply because they found a way to get it. “There’s an a-ha moment when you see all that data versus just seeing a column of emails, you know?” says Adam Robinson, a 39-year-old former Lehman Brothers employee who, along with his girlfriend Helen Sharp, is the public face of the company. “And we just live in this world of data now. It’s not my fault. It’s not Facebook’s fault. It’s just that, we live in it.”
The couple are unlikely ambassadors for a product with such potentially nefarious uses, and they have created a prolific output of bizarre marketing videos to promote the visitor-scraping tool they launched eight months ago and now say is bringing in $2.5 million a year. The short Youtube spots come off as something between performance art and the amateur salesmanship of an ad for a used car lot. A huge chunk of those videos, as well as what appears on Get Emails’ website, address the legitimacy of Robinsons’ business model, which is aggressively billed as completely above-board in the United States, if not really anywhere else.
“When someone finally understands what GetEmails is the first question they ask is, ‘How is this legal?” the couple says in one video that appears to have been shot in their kitchen. In other posts, they address essentially the same issue, but with Robinson dressed as the Hamburgler to symbolize the perception he’s “stealing data” or Sharp pouting at her boyfriend’s information-mining practices and calling him a “bad, bad boy.” In another video, Sharp wears a fox costume: “People love telling it’s unethical because it’s invasive, like this invasive species of fox! You know what’s really invasive? Facebook!” the couple relays in a sort of call-and-response.The simple answer to the legal question is that there isn’t legislation that comes close to addressing the tool they’ve created by merging several shady web practices into a single streamlined process. Or, as Robinson likes to point out, privacy and spam laws in the United States are opt-out, not opt-in. As long as you give a person the option to reject what you’re sending them, you can collect and transmit a whole trove of stuff. As Robinson told us, the data he’s using is “kind of a consumer gray area,” but can be incredibly valuable to the companies he serves. “This is not something that I think is like a 20-year business to be in,” he says. “It’s just something that exists now.’
The origin story of Get Emails involves the kind of accidental product development that’s common in the tech sector: A service is iterated upon and tweaked within a single context until it almost resembles something else. An email marketing tool for small businesses and e-commerce sites becomes a visitor scraper and then a way to turn website traffic into a list of locations and names.
Robinson, an affable and unguarded guy with hair to his shoulders, was in Aspen when we spoke. (As he told another interviewer, he read the four-hour work week several years ago and, on most days, skis from 9AM to noon.) He moved to New York in 2003 and worked for Lehman Brothers, trading credit default swaps. But his roommate, he says, started Vimeo in one of the places he lived in and he “always wanted to be this tech guy.” So after the financial crisis, he started an email-marketing business called Robly that was making $5 million in revenue by 2016. Recently, through Robly, Robinson found that an email-scraping service he offered was so popular his customers were using it in unconventional ways. “If you read stuff like Y Combinator,” he says, “they talk about what product market fit feels like,” referring to the idea that the thing you’re building should be the thing your audience is clamoring for the most. This felt, to him, like that. So he spun off a separate company, added a few more data points, and started selling his service that translates a website visitor into an email address, a postal address, and a name.
Broadly, GetEmails exploits some of the most deceitful services on the internet while managing to not quite become a scam itself. Across the internet, networks of exploitative websites—think healthinsurance.com, or a site that might promise to help you find an auto loan—save information entered into their various forms and put it up for sale. GetEmails says it has amassed more than 350 million email and postal addresses buying from these companies, as well as the first and last name of their owners.
Armed with this database, GetEmails takes advantage of one of the ways that email marketing services track users across the internet. When you interact with certain email newsletters—say, by clicking a link that’s embedded in a unsolicited promotional email from your dog’s vet—a small file, a cookie, is stored in your browser’s memory, which may contain a scrambled version of the email address to where the vet’s message was sent. According to Robinson, GetEmails has managed to access this specific kind of cookie for half of all web traffic in the United States through a series of partnerships with email marketing companies. So if you were to visit the website of one of Robinson’s customers, a piece of embedded code would cross-reference your scrambled email address with the database of other information gleaned from sites like healthinsurance.com to make a match.
Exploiting legal vacuums is “what entrepreneurs do, duh.”
Robinson says the home-made ads about legality and privacy were more or less a ploy to go viral. He says his first explainer video about his service brought in a new audience, if one that was vehemently opposed to his practices. “It was basically like, you guys are scumbags, you shouldn’t do this, this anti-privacy type of comment we were getting.” But, he says, the app also started to do “unbelievably well.” He and Sharp decided to keep making controversial ads, he says, “knowing that the people are haters and would never buy it anyway are going to help us get distribution from it.” When Jezebel asked if Robinson was trolling, he balked. “It’s all very experimental,” he says. “I don’t want it to be like Donald Trump.”
Robinson appears to oscillate between trumpeting his exploitation of loopholes and feeling sheepish about what his company can do. Our conversation sputtered when it moved away from ROIs and marketing and into the broader implications of the tool. At one point, he said the Daily Caller was their most well-known client; later, he downplayed the role of publishers and said Get Emails was really just a way for small businesses to email people who’d left a website with a full shopping cart. “That’s really the use case,” he said.
In one of the couple’s videos, Robinson countered charges that his tool was unethical by saying that exploiting legal vacuums is “what entrepreneurs do, duh,” and named AirBnB, Apple, and Uber. To us, he admitted that “if this were like Google and they were doing it for, like, every single American and every single business were using it, that is a totally different deal than us figuring out how to get a startup off the ground.” As the company got larger, he said, it might be worth reviewing whether postal addresses should be scraped along with emails and names.
A few minutes later, Robinson told us, “I would rather be on the record saying, I think that we discovered something and we will follow the economic use cases in a way that we hope is good for the world.” In a follow-up email, he noted that he considered his company successful because according to his data people opened up unsolicited emails more than ones they’d signed up for. “This thing is very new,” he said in our interview. “And entrepreneurism is not something that’s totally black and white.”
The contrast between the implications of surveillance tools created by marketing professionals and the professionals themselves—optimistic, hyper-focused, flummoxed by “use cases” outside of their own—usually makes for a cognitively dissonant interview like this. A few days after we spoke, Robinson and Sharp uploaded a new video in which the couple dressed up as Donald and Ivanka Trump to promote the “Great Get Emails Giveaway,” a hokey “replacement” for the Paycheck Protection Act. The release of all this data, Sharp said in a mock Eastern European accent, could provide businesses with “over 10 million dollars in stimulus” over the next 10 years.