What's Slack Doing With Your Data?

By Bryan Menegus on at

Boasting 9 million weekly users, troves of information flow through workplace chat app Slack from inside tens of thousands of companies. And for employees of those companies who spend 8 or more hours on Slack most days, the only way not to use the service is to find a new job. So what’s Slack doing with all the information we send through it?

In a conversation with the MIT Technology Review, CEO Stewart Butterfield dropped a few hints about the famously opaque tech darling’s Search, Learning & Intelligence arm. Amongst its current goals is “an always-on virtual chief of staff who reads every single message in Slack and then synthesises all that information based on your preferences.” Although Slack gives users a fair bit of latitude in determining what data is available to the company for analysis, their Privacy Policy has a number of broad provisions that suggest user data could feed into such a project.

Butterfield also casually mentions “a partnership with IBM, with the Watson team, which is more like collaboration on an ongoing basis,” though he’s vague on what shape the partnership takes. Presumably IBM’s machine learning products could be improved by the same thing that’s led investors to pour millions into Slack: its enormous cache of information from actual humans.

According to a former Slack employee who spoke to Gizmodo on the condition of anonymity, Slack’s business model consists entirely of capturing the enterprise market—big businesses willing to join paid Slack plans. This employee also claimed Slack was not engaged in the sharing of chatlogs with third parties, which makes this IBM collaboration sound all the stranger. We’ve reached out to Slack to clarify the nature of the partnership.

It’s possible a company valued at £3.8 billion and with massive hoards of investor cash really is just trying to make our work lives easier, and the company as it currently exists has no nefarious goals. It’s still worth considering what could be accomplished with the infrastructure Slack has created if it falls under new management. It’s not hard to imagine a sale or IPO leading to a change in direction and policy where that user data becomes a goldmine for advertisers or other entities wishing to leverage it in more straightforward ways.

Are you a current or former Slack employee? Send us an encrypted email. We’d love to know what goes on inside one of the world’s fastest growing chat apps.