To see for yourself, go see the data of latest transaction on Venmo. That URL is live on the Internet for *anyone* to see.
In 2017, there were
207,984,218 public Venmo transactions
And I looked at all of them! By visiting this public URL, I was able to see every name, every date, and every message sent.
I used this data to explore the lives of 5 unsuspecting humans who use the Venmo platform.
Privacy On This Site
This site respects the "Do Not Track" request that users can set in their browsers. When enabled nothing is tracked on this site. Browser extensions like Ghostery or Privacy Badger that block trackers also prevent users from being tracked on this site. Having both is highly recommended - in general!
This site tracks the one page the visitor visited before coming to this site.
This site tracks the operating system and browser the visitor uses and the screen size her/his device.
This site tracks views on the following pages: Venmo Privacy Settings, the 5 stories, Venmo god.
All of the above can't be traced back to any specific person.
This site doesn't store personally identifiable information about visitors of this site.
This site stores the visitor's anonymized IP address (3 bytes, e.g. 192.xxx.xxx.xxx) on the owner's server (to which only the owner has access to).
This is how it looks like in the visitor log:
The IP address only shows a quarter of the real digits and therefore the location can only be estimated. In case of a server breach nobody could use this data to identify the visitors or to link it to any other existing records.
Why did I make this?
As a designer and developer, I’ve always been interested in data and privacy — specifically, how social media exposes so much of our personal life to so many people, often without us fully understanding how. (My previous project, Data Selfie, is a browser extension that shows what Facebook might know about you through various prediction algorithms.)
Many products that we use on a daily basis make it more difficult than it should be to protect our privacy, our most personal information. Many of these products share data (publicly) by default. Venmo is an example of one of these products.
And what an interesting example! One would think that when it comes to money, privacy by design is of greater importance and higher demand. One would be disappointed in this particular case .
I think it's problematic that there is a public feed which includes real names, their profile links (to access past transactions), possibly their Facebook IDs and essentially their network of friends they spend time with. And all of this is so easy to access! I believe this could be designed better. Why include all this information, when essentially the only interesting part is the message? If you – as a company – actually care about your users and their privacy you would ask this kind of questions.
So, if companies don't care, I think WE have to take action !
When you think of your transactions, you might think "I have nothing to hide." But after spending time with these stories and insights, perhaps you will ask "Do I really need to share this?" and invest a few seconds to change your settings on Venmo and on other services.
Hopefully companies will one day put user data protection first, either pressured by regulation or by us users. For now, we have to be proactive and protect our pricacy.
You will see the data for the most recent public transaction on Venmo. This includes first and last names, profile picture, the time of the transaction, the message and more.
The blog post by Dan Gorelick called '"Hacking" the public Venmo API' has great documentation of how the API works, including how to get transactions from a specific point in time. It's public, yet not documented anywhere on Venmo's website.
What happened after?
I published PublicByDefault.fyi in July 2018. After the attention the project had received from various press outlets and even a bot on Twitter was created to make public transactions even more public by tweeting them, around the same time, Venmo reminded existing users through some popup screens that their transactions are public if they don’t change their settings, a couple days later.
The platform also quietly decreased the rate limit dramatically. So bulk access to the API, getting hundreds of public transactions every two seconds like I had done, is not possible anymore. They also disabled the date parameters (since and until), so you can't request past transactions anymore, making it impossible to create a database with the same amount of data that I collected. In my opinion this is only a small step in the right direction towards more security. The default is still public and the public API still exists. That for me doesn’t show a company’s commitment to fully protecting their users’ privacy and data.
On August 23, 2018, a Bloomberg article stated that “In recent weeks, executives at PayPal Holdings Inc., the parent company of Venmo, were weighing whether to remove the option to post and view public transactions, said a person familiar with the deliberations. It’s unclear if those discussions are still ongoing.”
This is a project by Hang Do Thi Duc, made in 2018 while a Media Fellow at the Mozilla Foundation, supported [in part] by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. Hang Do Thi Duc developed concept, performed data analysis, designed and developed this media piece.
Additional graphic design and data processing
Huy Do Duc
Communications and copy writing
Consultancy for data analysis and design
Amel Ghouila, Chris Hartgerink, Umi Syam
Change your settings in the Venmo app
Click on the highlighted areas and your done in 20 seconds!
The Venmo God
The Cannabis Retailer
The Corn Dealer
The All Americans
In the 200M+ transactions I discovered 5 personal stories.
The story of the Venmo God summarizes the superhuman insights gained from all public transactions.
The Cannabis Retailer
With access to the first name, I could infer that this person was male. I was also able to determine that he operates out of Santa Barbara, California. You might wonder how: some of his customers have a Facebook URL as their profile picture which includes their Facbeook ID and so it was easy for me to see where some of them, and therefore the protagonist of this story as well, live.
His very first transaction looks something like this:
"picture": "https://s3.amazonaws.com/venmo/no-image.gif", "firstname": "his first name", "lastname": "his last name", "date_created": "2017-01-24T00:41:09", "target":
"picture": "https://graph.fb.com/v2/[redacted FB ID]", "firstname": "customer's first name", "lastname": "customer's last name", "date_created": "2014-07-11T01:27:36", "created_time": "2017-01-25T06:03:04Z",
"message": "for cbd",
He registered on January 24, 2017, a day before his first transaction, and had a total of 943 transactions in 2017.
You probably noticed that cbd/CBD comes up a lot — 150 times to be exact. It's the abbreviation of "Cannabidiol [...] one of at least 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis" (Wikipedia). Other frequent messages include delivery, order, , , and headband, "an exotic strain of marijuana" (Urban Dictionary).
My hunch is that even the "grocery" transactions refer to drug deals — there are 36 incoming transactions from 23 different people with this topic. No one I know buys groceries this way.
Seems like business is going well! He even has the cash to hire someone: Someone I’ve called Ronny made the following 19 payments to the drug dealer throughout the year with references to cannabis.
This is Ronny Registered Sep 2014
Real names were replaced with fake ones.
Warning If you don’t want Google to think you are interested in cannabis, you might want to log out of Google before or clean your cookies after you click on the links below.
I was able to learn a lot about weed examining these transactions. Terms like Gorilla Cookie, Stacked Kush, GDP (abbreviation for Granddaddy Purple), and God's gift seem to refer to different strains of cannabis.
I should note that his business is legal in the state of California. It seems, however, that eventually, our dealer felt like these transactions didn't need to be public on the internet — he has since changed his settings to make all of his transactions private (you should, too!). Good job, dude!
This Venmo human operates an incredibly successful food cart. Students from the University of California Santa Barbara get their fix of elotes, mangos, raspados, tostilocos, and chicharrones here.
The cart vendor had a total of 8026 transactions in 2017. He registered on February 23, 2016.
The food cart's most frequent customer – let's just call her Cecile – came here 34 times in 2017, almost every week (except in the summer) and always around the same time.
Because Venmo data is often public, anybody can learn when you're craving what food and where to find you. While Cecile's hunger being public knowledge may not seem a big deal to you, many people have reason to keep their whereabouts private. Victims of domestic abuse, for example. I had to wonder if these hungry students understood that they were broadcasting their location with every bite.
Let's see a timelapse of Cecile's 34 purchases!
As you can see here, elote is this young woman's favorite. It's also the overall most popular item with 30% (or 2509) of all transactions including the word "elote", "corn," or the corn emoji. In case you don't know what it is:
"Elote (Nahuatl: ēlōtl [ˈeːloːt͡ɬ]),
or corn on the cob is a popular street food in Mexico, although it is frequently served at home prepared in the same way (boiled or grilled in husk). It is customarily consumed on a stick, or by grasping the husk of the cob that has been pulled down to form a handle". Condiments such as salt, chili powder, butter, cheese, lemon juice or lime juice, mayonnaise, and sour cream (or crema) are usually added to the elote.
Another way of presenting elotes is by serving the cut kernels in a bowl. In the southern and central areas of Mexico, people call this esquites instead of elote. Any of the toppings above are added to the corn and it is then eaten with a spoon.
In the southern and central urban zones of Mexico, ready-to-eat boiled elotes are usually sold by street vendors or in stands, but in the rest of Mexico elotes are more frequently sold in stores or restaurants. The elotes are boiled in water or grilled over coals and condiments of the customer's choosing are added when sold."
Quote from a transaction message – April 13, 2017 3:27pm
1861 x Mango, 719 x Raspado/Shaved Ice , 299 x Tostilocos, 223 x Chicharrones and 696 x Various Orders (e.g. "esquite", "chips", "churros", "papas", "doritos", "taki", "", "diablito", "tostitos").
Forget soap operas and romantic novels — Venmo is the best place to find drama. I discovered these two couples’ stories while looking for transactions with the most comments. You can find whole conversations in Venmo comments, almost like a chat!
"actor": "Susana", "created_time": "2017-02-14T03:07:40Z", "message": "I returned it back to you",
"actor": "Susana", "created_time": "2017-02-14T03:07:45Z", "message": "Yo leave me alone",
Interestingly, all four of these lovers (and in fact most people who comment frequently) have very few transactions in the whole year of 2017. This makes me wonder: are they familiar enough with the platform to know that everything is public by default? While Venmo’s interface encourages this type of social conversation, do users fully understand that anyone can view their chats?
A sad story
To protect their privacy, I am going to call the protagonists of the first story Susana and Gonzalo. They decided to discuss their relationship matters in public. Or was that really a conscious choice?
The two of them were also quite new to the app at the time this happened — they registered for Venmo on January 14 and January 20.
A happy story
In this story you can witness how Breezy and Pedro — two aliases — start to get to know each other in public. They discuss specific transaction amounts and their living situation in Clute, TX and Houston, TX. After exchanging messages every day (sometimes in real time) for about a week (October 20-28), they decided to move on from Venmo. I hope it had a happy ending!
Pedro and Breezy are also fairly new users, having registered on September 6 and October 8, respectively.
Do you also have extensive conversations in the comment sections of Venmo transactions? These are public by default, too! Go into your Venmo privacy settings to change that.
You only live once, right?
This young female with a name of Greek origin certainly enjoys life to the fullest. Let's just call her Calista. Calista has been using Venmo since March 24, 2017 and accumulated 2033 transactions in the following 8 months.
Here's how one of her many transactions looks like.
It's not clear where she lives, but some of the people in her network live in Texas and Mexico City.
Note: All public transactions include the URLs to each person's profile picture. Some URLs include the Facebook ID, so one can see their public information at facebook.com/FACEBOOKID.
Venmo users are encouraged to submit captions to describe transactions. Our hedonistic friend described her consumption habits with words and emojis, and the emerging portrait is not a healthy one. She might want to consider that it has become common for insurance companies to monitor social media to verify health claims.
965 transactions for sodas, alcoholic drinks, fast food and sweets in 8 months really don't seem very healthy to me.
My Consumption 2017
Some messages above have been modified for better readibility. "Coke" and "Soda" were replaced with "🥤", and the following messages were replaced with the closest matching emoji: ":festival_beer:", ":rocket_popsicle:", ":america_cake:", ":candy_cane:", "drinkk", "drink", ":candy_corn:", "candy", ":festival_grilled_cheese:", "cokkies", "chesse", "pizzas". Furthermore, numbers and words like e.g. "para ti" and "for" were removed as they do not change the meaning of the message.
Our YOLO girl just looooves Coke (280x), (248x) and (209x). She shared her 280 Cokes with 37 people last year. The majority of her transaction messages are also very short – often just 1-2 emojis or words – and don't vary a lot, which shows a certain routine.
What does she do and share with her 3 besties? Here are each of their 5 most used messages.
Do you want an artist (or anybody really) to be able to judge your diet from data they’re able to freely download from the Internet? If not, change your Venmo privacy settings.
The All Americans
This married couple (they share a last name) owns a dog and a car which they prefer to fuel at Chevron about every two weeks. They really like pizza (their favorite is from Shakey's), but they occasionally also eat Asian and German food. And they buy a lot of groceries.
Most of the time money is flowing from the wife to the husband, however insurance, rent and loan is paid by the husband to the wife. They had 503 transactions between each other.
20 transactions last year were about loan, usually paid Thursday, Friday or Saturday. It's always the same person making payments to the other, though not always in full not consistently at the beginning or end of the month. 3 transactions are charges, meaning the person who pays the loan requests money.
Our married couple is a great example of how your transactions can reveal a lot about you, including habits and routines. By far the most transactions are for grocery stores – 25 x Walmart, 19 x Albertsons and 15 x CostCo. They went to Aldi and Walgreens a few times. They go shopping more than once a week, but almost never on Wednesday or Sunday.
Looking at all transactions, I believe that the both of them live in Orange County, CA..
There are 8 transactions including the term SDG&E. San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) "provides natural gas and electricity to San Diego County and southern Orange County in southwestern California". They visited a theater in the region (Regal Eastvale), "Chicago Ribs" appears 5 times (could be a reference to the "Chicago for Ribs" restaurant that has 3 locations (Los Angeles, San Pedro and Redondo Beach), and LAX, the airport in Los Angeles, is mentioned twice about one month apart. Other transactions that support this assumption include the In n out, Aldi (within California only in the south), and "Banfield Pet Hospital".
The two of them are real brand name shoppers — including the ones mentioned above there are 31 in total:
99 cent store
Bath and Body Works
Bed Bath and Beyond
In n out
Jack in the Box
Social networks already serve ads to us based on what we like and watch. Why give up even more information about yourself publicly? Change those Venmo privacy settings.
The Humans of Venmo
The following insights are based on the 207,984,218 public Venmo transactions from 2017.
18,429,464humans who share their transactions publicly
1,189,210unique last names
Here are the 50 most frequent last names among the people who have public transactions. Some names can easily reveal the ethnicity and even, in some cases, the country of origin. For example "Nguyen", ranked 8th, is a very typical Vietnamese name.
Almost 8 million users who are sharing their transactions publicly registered in 2017. Venmo is growing rapidly. Still, most public transactions came from users who signed up in previous years.
= 80K users
= 700K payments
You might wonder when are those humans the most active?
Note: For each transaction there is a timestamp of when it was made. This time is the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Usually, the east coast of the US is 4 hours and the west coast is 7 hours behind GMT. As the real Venmo company, they probably know exactly what the local time of each transaction is because of the user's IP address.
So 12am GMT is 5pm in San Francisco and 8pm in New York.
Average number of transactions per hour in Pacific Time / Eastern Time
207,984,218public Venmo transactions
2,979,619public transactions involving "" or "Pizza"
Here is the breakdown per month.
"" is the most used "word" on (public) Venmo. There were 1,887,366 transactions that just had this one emoji as the caption.
Another very popular use case for Venmo is paying rent! Everyone can see who you live with.
3,020,484public transactions involving "" or "Rent"
People are going places...
Here are the most popular destinations associated with messages people pay each other for Airbnb accommodations.
They also like to share rides when going out and about. They take traditional taxi rides, but messages that mention "", "", "taxi" or "cab" are by far not as frequent as Uber transactions. Lyft can't quite compete, either.
= 100,000 transactions.
The Busiest Weekend
December 1-3, 2017 was the busiest weekend of the year with December 2 the day with the most transactions. In the 59 hours from 1pm on Friday afternoon west coast time until Sunday midnight more than a tenth of all public transactions of the year were made.
2,342,411public transactions between Dec 1, 1:00pm - Dec 3, 11:59pm
Here are the most frequently used words found in the transaction messages that weekend. People were going out for drinks and food, but also responsibly paid rent. At the same time they used their free time to start preparing for Christmas.
I have no doubt you can gain many more insights from this data set. Imagine having the dollar amounts of the transactions, too! Venmo which is owned by PayPal, has access to a wealth of data. This is just a tiny glimpse into it.