AirBnB wisely enables anonymized emails between renters and hosts, because privacy

By Michael Carney , written on August 4, 2014

From The News Desk

AirBnB is taking a page out of the Craigslist and LinkedIn private messaging playbook with a newly announced feature to anonymize emails sent between host and renters, it announced today in a blog post and corresponding email letter to its users..

Previously, after a booking was arranged, the company would reveal the private email addresses of the two parties and allow them to communicate directly. This type of communication is often necessary to arrange finer details like checkin logistics and parking. But it's not a stretch to understand why users who, save for a single short term booking likely will never have any reason to communicate again, may be reticent about sharing their personal contact details.

Under the new service, AirBnB will create temporary unique email addresses for each user in the conversation and forward these messages behind the scenes to the respective users' private email addresses. From an end-user experience point of view, nothing will change except that you won't be able to see the counterparty's personal email address and won't be able to use the temporary address provided after a booking and stay are complete.

AirBnB explains the motivations behind this change, writing:

We did this because some scammers like to get your personal email address and use it as part of their schemes. Anonymous email addresses will help us protect our community’s personal information from people who seek to abuse our system. Our existing security procedures help minimize the risk of these types of abuses, but we take your security seriously and we believe this new measure can do more to help fight fraud, scams, or phishing...

We believe that anonymized emails will be an important step in helping us build a more trusted community. If a customer encounters a suspicious profile, listing, or message thread, we encourage them to flag it for review by our Trust and Safety Team. Of course it would be possible for users to create free alternate email accounts on free services like Gmail or Outlook, but that's additional hassle (not to mention account bloat for email providers) that AirBnB has now eliminated.

Another option would have been for AirBnB to launch a captive messaging service like the ones used by everyone from Facebook to Uber. But from a user experience point of view, the easiest solution is the app or protocol that is already installed on your device and you're already using – in this case email and your existing account.

There are potential downsides to this approach. As a recent scandal involving a long-term rental gone awry in one AirBnB user's Palm Springs home demonstrates, often it's necessary to communicate with a renter after and official booking is complete. Even in more mundane scenarios, like when you leave your sunglasses or cell phone charger behind, it may be necessary to reach out to a prior host or guest. AirBnB doesn't specify just how long these temporary email addresses will be valid – and it would seemingly be easy enough to keep them active for something like 14 to 30 days after a booking – but it's worth pointing out that there may be unintended consequences of this approach that need to be ironed out.

Also, there are likely to be those early adopters who lament that AirBnB is becoming more corporate, and less about forming true friendships and bonds and connections. The service has steadily morphed from a place where you might sleep on someone's air mattress and share a bowl of Obama O's with them in the morning to a loose-knit chain of homes-turned-into-hotels. Such is the inevitability of a scaling online community, and it's good that AirBnB isn't resisting the necessary changes that need to happen with it.

AirBnB deserves to be commended for this proactive approach to user privacy and security. When all too many sharing economy and consumer messaging startups routinely shown to ignore these issues, these guys are obviously thinking about ways to make their product safer without compromising user experience. Anonymized emails are hardly new or novel, but that doesn't make the change any less meaningful. Kudos, AirBnB.

Below is the full AirBnB email announcing the change:

AirBnB email

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.]