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Privacy & Security

Workers Find Safe Spaces In Private Slack Channels, But How Safe Are They?

Private online chat channels on Slack are the modern-day "safe spaces" for co-workers. Guido Rosa/Ikon Images/Getty Images hide caption

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Guido Rosa/Ikon Images/Getty Images

Private online chat channels on Slack are the modern-day "safe spaces" for co-workers.

Guido Rosa/Ikon Images/Getty Images

When it comes to a popular work-messaging app, "just between you and me" may not be as private as you think.

Slack has broken through as a user-friendly messaging app geared for teamwork and collaboration; its user base has more than tripled in the past year, to 3 million active users as of May.

Businesses like Lush and charity: water have embraced its offerings: You can get bots to answer common office questions, respond to messages with GIFs or personalized emojis, or integrate external services like Twitter and Google Drive.

"We're on it all day long," says Andrea Gaither, vice president of engineering at a youth volunteer site called DoSomething.org. "You get things done, but it's a place to pal around with your co-workers."

That "pal-ing around" comes from one of Slack's core features: Any employee can create a group, called a "channel" in Slackspeak. Originally intended for projects, departments or other company-related messages, channels can be public and open to anyone to join and create, or they can be private, exclusive to invitees.

This has spawned a new kind of workplace community, sometimes used as something of a digital "safe place." However, privacy experts and even Slack itself warn that these safe spaces may not be as safe as they seem.

Casual channels can spring up purely for fun (charity: water has a Slack channel called "charitycharity" for photos of workers who happened to dress similarly) but also out of a need for support and discussion (DoSomething.org has a co-ed feminism channel and another one called "#formation," named after a Beyoncé song, for people of color).

Though it's in a new digital venue, this phenomenon is only the latest iteration of how co-workers communicate with each other on the job, says Vincent Roscigno, a sociology professor who studies occupational inequality at The Ohio State University.

"It is inevitable that when you spend 40 hours a week (at work) that it's inherent in human nature to look for connections with people," Roscigno says. "Even in the most intense assembly line jobs, where machines are always going, workers have found a way to communicate with each other — with sign language or ... through facial gestures."

And it can be in a company's interest to facilitate these closed communities among its employees, Roscigno says, especially for women and people of color, who have historically been discriminated against in the workplace. Discrimination is, of course, illegal, and from a corporate standpoint, unhappy workers can lead to high rates of costly turnover and loss of talent.

Privacy And Ethics Concerns

But with Slack channels, unlike assembly lines, conversations become data — and personal data get mixed with company data.

Slack channels can seem really private: While any employee can very easily create a new private channel, only those invited can join or even see that the channel exists. But these assumptions are just that — assumptions.

"It is important to remember that it is still business software," Slack spokeswoman Julia Blystone told NPR in an email, "and anything you communicate on a workplace device using a workplace network may ultimately belong to your employer."

For instance, if the employer is on a "Plus plan" and can demonstrate legal authorization to access employee conversations, the company can access message archives and export conversations even from private channels after submitting an application to Slack. And add-ons contributed by Slack users, such as anonymous messaging, aren't policed by Slack and aren't guaranteed to protect users' privacy.

Corporate privacy experts also worry about access by outsiders, such as the cloud services provider. Dana Simberkoff, chief compliance and risk officer at a software firm called AvePoint, suggests that IT, privacy and security teams examine how employees use Slack and give users options on how to enjoy its benefits while reducing the risk for the company.

"We all think that brakes on cars are supposed to stop you from going too fast, (but) the reason brakes were invented [was] to allow you to go fast," Simberkoff says. "And that's how you think about data controls — they allow you to embrace technology and data and its full potential."

Another concern with private Slack channels is an ethical one.

"The intent of these groups is very good — providing deep levels of social support for those who are underrepresented or who feel like they have trouble balancing family or work, getting promotions," says Roscigno, the sociology professor. "The potential fall here is that ... there might be a backlash."

For example, what happens when exclusion becomes part of channels meant to promote inclusion? It can get especially tricky with identity-based channels. Who determines if mixed-race individuals are allowed to join the channel for people of color? Or if white men are allowed to form their own private channel?

DoSomething.org is taking some steps to avoid Slack-related ethical conflicts. Gaither says her department has a list of Slack etiquette — messages should be responded to in 48 hours, for example. More serious questions or criticisms should be taken offline — and can be submitted anonymously on paper to be addressed at a quarterly dinner.

But ultimately, Slack's Blystone says, employees need to be aware of their company's IT policies when it comes to online communication. There's a good chance your private casual channels still belong to your employer.

Blystone says Slack is doing everything it can to make privacy policies transparent and Slack employees themselves, in fact, have formed channels for safe spaces. "That's a trust that we have with employees," she says.