On Evernote’s new Context feature, and why it’s a problem

In today’s iOS and Mac update, Evernote added a new feature for premium users named Context. Here’s the description from the release notes:

Premium feature: Context

  • Context displays notes, articles, and people related to what you’re working on
  • View related articles from The Wall Street Journal and other sources and related people from LinkedIn and your business

That first bullet point isn’t all that new. For a while now, Evernote has been able to show related notes in the Mac app, but pulling in data from the web is new. Here’s a list of sources that can appear in Evernote based on the content of the current note:

Clearly, this is a business move by Evernote to diversify its income past selling premium memberships, and I don’t disparage the company trying to do that.

However, there is no situation in which I want content from the Internet appearing alongside the endless amounts of information about work clients, home projects and my business I store within Evernote.

Of course, it’s foolish to think Evernote — as a corporation — doesn’t have the ability to see what I store in its applications. However, on its “Three Laws of Data Protection” webpage, Evernote’s CEO Phil Libin writes:

Everything you put into Evernote is private by default. We are not a “big data” company and do not try to make money from your content. Our systems automatically analyze your data in order to power Evernote features, such as search and related notes, and to tell you about important features and products that we think will enhance your Evernote experience, but we never give or sell your content to any third party for advertising purposes.

bold emphasis his, not mine

While Context may not officially break this “law of data protection,” it sure feels icky.

As of today — October 31, 2014 — the term context does not appear in Evernote’s Terms of Service, but it does in the company’s Privacy Policy:

With our Context feature, the Evernote Service uses a number of technologies to show you relevant content. The content we show you may include Notes from your own account, Notes from accounts you are connected to through Evernote Business or Work Chat, and third party content that you have elected to receive. We believe features like these, which work automatically without any person at Evernote reviewing your Content, will enhance your experience using the Service. Context is turned on by default in applications where the feature is offered, but you can choose to turn it off. Context appears as “related results” in our Web Clipper, a feature which is turned on by default for our Business users.

While I’m glad humans aren’t looking at my notes, I don’t want content from the web being pulled into Evernote.

To disable the Context feature, you have to take a trip into Evernote’s application settings on each device. On the Mac app, the verbiage makes me think that Context can’t be turned off, just hidden:

Clicking the “Manage Context Sources” button loads the Evernote web app, where sources can be turned off:

These settings do sync with the iOS device, which is nice, but again, it’s unclear if this feature can be disabled completely.

This is another example of Evernote spreading itself past its primary scope. I want Evernote sync to be fast and reliable, and I want their apps to be world-class. That’s not true today, and until it is, additions like Context have me wondering if its time to move on from the service.