On One Website, Users Give Up Privacy to Get Privacy

A social media site that aims to embrace privacy asks for either a phone number, credit card information, the last four digits of the user’s Social Security number, or a postal address when signing up for an account.

The website, Nextdoor, claims the information is used to ensure the people are who they say they are and that they live at the address that they provided.

“We work with a third-party data provider to match the billing address associated with a credit card or the mailing address associated with a Social Security number with the address listed on a member’s Nextdoor account,” a Nextdoor spokeswoman said. “If the addresses match, the member is verified. We do not house nor store any of the data.”

If the user chooses to provide a postal address, they would have to wait three to five days to receive a postcard, which will give them a code to enter to verify their account. In a time period when people expect to access accounts to various websites immediately, the postcard option is a backward change of pace.

“Most members verify their accounts instantly through a variety of our verification methods, including the credit card and SSN methods,” the spokeswoman said.

Nextdoor separates users into groups by neighborhood, allowing a person to interact only with neighbors, which makes address verification important. Neighbors can post information about a break-in, organize a neighborhood watch group, find a babysitter, and discuss the best painters and roofers in town.

In order to ensure that the website is safe enough to enable people to have conversations they would have face-to-face with a neighbor, the site mandates that every user verify their address and sign in with their real name. Also, the site is encrypted by HTTPS, users’ posts will not show up on Google or other search engines, and the site never shares user information with advertisers.

The site also prohibits users from racial profiling, especially when posting information about a crime.

“We expressly prohibit posts that assume someone is suspicious because of their race or ethnicity,” Nextdoor’s website said. “We also prohibit messages that give descriptions of suspects that are so vague as to cast suspicion over an entire race or ethnicity. Such messages are ineffective and harm rather than help communities.”

Nextdoor recommends that users include multiple, distinctive characteristics of a suspect to help the police identify the person. This includes clothing, hair color, tattoos, and birthmarks. Nextdoor bans users from identifying people based on race or sex alone.

The Neighbors for Racial Justice group, based in Oakland, Calif., first compelled its city council to help them appeal to Nextdoor to prohibit racial profiling on its site. Nextdoor changed its policy, which police say is more helpful now that they have access to specific characteristics of suspects rather than vague descriptions of race.

Nextdoor also recruits law enforcement and city councils to post on its site to update the community on crime investigations and events. After the July shootings in Dallas, the police department used Nextdoor to communicate safely with residents and recruit employees for the police force. Nextdoor has partnered with more than 1,600 public agencies.

Nextdoor also has guidelines for “neighborly behavior,” which include treating everyone with respect, sharing helpful information, and honestly representing oneself. This differs from social media sites such as Twitter, where hateful messages, especially targeted at minorities, can be the norm.

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