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LinkedIn Intro: A cautionary tale for iPhone app developers

By Brian S Hall / November 21, 2013

LinkedIn recently launched Intro, an innovative service that works exclusively with iOS Mail to bring users a more personalized emailing experience. Although its intentions are good, the introduction of LinkedIn Intro has caused a minor firestorm of controversy.

For Intro to function properly, users must allow LinkedIn unfettered access to their email. For many, this is an obvious privacy concern. For others, including both individuals and corporations, it’s also a possible security threat.

LinkedIn inside your email

The crux of Intro is pretty simple. Once you sign up for the software, LinkedIn “automagically” inserts the your profile into the body of your messages. Now, every professional email you send is validated by your LinkedIn image, job title and company name, as well as your profile summary and links to possible shared connections. 

With LinkedIn Intro, emails that once appeared to be nothing more than spam may now prove worthy of a rapid, thoughtful response. As LinkedIn shows, the difference with and without Intro is quite clear. By providing iOS mail recipients with the LinkedIn profile of the sender, a more robust interaction between professionals can occur. LinkedIn Intro has the potential to spur more growth for users’ professional networks, improve communications and set the stage for a more meaningful dialogue among contacts.

The software currently works with Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL, Apple’s iCloud and several other email services. It’s also rather easy to launch. Instead of downloading an app, users simply provide LinkedIn with their mobile phone number. They instantly receive a link, sent via text message, which guides them through the few necessary steps. To avoid receiving duplicate emails, users just need to go into their iOS settings and turn off any non-Intro email accounts.

The information Intro delivers should prove useful to many individuals spanning nearly every industry. However, Despite its potential benefits to both users and the LinkedIn ecosystem, app developers should tread cautiously before crafting a service that mimics Intro’s functionality.

Developers beware

LinkedIn Intro is, in many ways, a rather remarkable feat of coding. It greatly enhances the monotony of checking and responding to email while adding an extra filter for the endless amounts of spam and e-newsletters we receive on a daily basis. But perhaps LinkedIn is getting a little too involved in our email accounts.

Although LinkedIn Intro is not technically a violation of the regulations governing Apple’s email service or applications, it’s pretty darn close. In order for Intro to skirt around Apple’s rules, our individual privacies may be at risk. By inserting a user’s LinkedIn profile into a their emails, LinkedIn has positioned themselves as an intermediary between sender and recipient. Every email sent through Intro is scraped or “read” by LinkedIn’s servers. Regardless of the company’s assurances, this adds another point of vulnerability to a user’s account, offering hackers another potential pathway to your personal information.

For all its benefits, the concerns over privacy and security appear likely to overwhelm the service. They may even require Apple to step in and make changes to its already stringent policies. Note that both tech blogs and mainstream news publications sounded the alarm. For example, a recent USA Today article stated:

LinkedIn’s new Intro functionality, launched by CEO Jeff Weiner earlier this week, is intended to make the business networking service more mobile friendly. But it also runs the risk of making LinkedIn more attractive to hackers. At least that’s the early reaction from two prominent security analysts.

The message from Forbes is even more provocative:

LinkedIn’s new Intro service has put up a big sign advertising to cyber criminals, nation states and others “hack here, we’ve got loads of juicy data.” The architecture of its new service is innovative but compromises your security and privacy in ways you really should care about.  

The security concerns reached such a fever pitch, LinkedIn had to address it in a public response on their blog:

After having been a member of the security community for more than 15 years, I understand that healthy skepticism and speculation towards worst-case scenarios are an important part of the security discipline; however, we felt, in this case, it was necessary to correct the misperceptions. We welcome and encourage an open dialogue about the risks that are present in all Internet-based services that handle electronic mail and other sensitive data.

Developer opportunity

If LinkedIn Intro finds a way to calm the public’s privacy concerns, we may soon see a flood of apps and social media platforms trying to incorporate similar functions into their services. Yelp, for example, could turn e-receipts and eblasts from local boutiques and restaurants into content-rich communications containing the latest reviews, updated menus, reservation statuses and social shopping deals. But before companies delve too deep into this revolutionary form of email, there are some very serious precautions that must heeded.

LinkedIn Intro may eventually prove to be a useful tool for many professionals, but the service is currently hampered by legitimate concerns over the use of third-party email servers, user tracking and security. If LinkedIn is lucky, the fear that has been spreading through the media won’t prevent Intro from getting a fair shake with users. And if developers are smart, they’ll learn from this controversy and make security their first priority when venturing into the email territory.