LinkedIn took to its blog this weekend to refute allegations in a class action suit that it “hacks” into member email accounts and spams their contacts.
LinkedIn has updated language on email collectionFrequent users of LinkedIn know what this is about. LinkedIn gets ahold of your email contacts, suggests that you connect with those who already have LinkedIn accounts, and proposes that you invite others to join LinkedIn. After a few clicks, LinkedIn sends invites on your behalf.

This kind of thing is standard fare with social networking sites. Google+, with its access to Gmail, knows who you know (or at least who you email), and suggests that you put those people into Circles, even if they’re not on Google+.

We live in a socially connected, ready-to-share world. Significant numbers of sites and apps have thrived because we willingly give them access to our Facebook and Twitter accounts. But LinkedIn’s use of our friends’ email addresses seems to be especially bothersome.

It happens in a couple of ways:

  • When you first create your account, and LinkedIn seeks to verify your email address by signing into your email account, and
  • When LinkedIn displays your email address in a box on the home page, suggesting that you sign in to find more connections.

In both cases, LinkedIn collects the email addresses you know to find matches in its member database. Historically, LinkedIn has not been very clear about this. The registration process seems to dead-end if you don’t sign into your email. And even veteran members can be tripped up by the email box on the home page. I have seen this scores of times in classes and workshops over the last three years. People see their email address and a space for a password, and they type away, assuming that they’re signing in to LinkedIn, not accessing their email account.

To be fair, LinkedIn has recently updated the language around these actions. Where it once said that “searching your email contacts is the easiest way to find people you already know on LinkedIn,” it now notes that by entering your email password “you give us permission to send it to a partner for the sole purpose of checking your e-mail contacts.” It’s small print, but it’s an improvement over years of practice.

Having a large network of professionals you know and trust is one of the fundamental elements of LinkedIn success. Connecting with people you communicate with by email is one way to build the network. But the individual members should be in charge of their connection activity. Which means the smart course of action is not let LinkedIn into your email in the first place. And how do you do that?

  • Use a different password for LinkedIn than you do for your email account. (That’s a standard safety tip.)
  • Ignore the content on the LinkedIn home page that says “Quickly grow your network” or “See who you already know on LinkedIn.” These sections will try to access your email account.
  • Don’t sign in to your email account while you’re creating your LinkedIn account. Look for links that say “skip this step,” and then the link that says “send a confirmation email instead.” LinkedIn will send an email to your account to validate that you own the email address.

What’s your experience with LinkedIn’s email collection?