What It’s Like at the Center of the Surveillance Economy—Data Sheet

October 7, 2019, 12:27 PM UTC

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I recently visited the San Francisco visitor sign-in company Envoy with an axe to grind: I refused to sign in electronically. It was my one-man protest to the privacy invasion Envoy is inflicting on the visitors of its clients, who are asked to fork over their name, email address, usually their image, and, quite often, a non-disclosure agreement.

CEO Larry Gadea was understanding of my reservations. He also didn’t seem offended when I told him I sometimes look away from the camera and often sign “M. Mouse” on the signature pad. My contention is that I shouldn’t have to share my identity just to have a meeting, and Gadea called my concerns “totally reasonable.”

He then went on to tell me why Envoy, which he started in 2013 after a stint as a low-number Twitter employee, has caught on with customers (and backers including Menlo Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz). Big companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook already had sophisticated electronic sign-in systems, but small companies didn’t. Envoy lets companies track visitors and also comply with citizenship and other regulatory requirements. He says 13,000 companies use Envoy daily. More than 6,000 of them pay the per-office, per-month fees that range from $100 to $1,000. And he says 130,000 people sign in daily across Envoy’s client base.

His dreams for Envoy are big. Already Envoy has a mailroom product to track deliveries. And it is testing a meeting-room-management tool. Customers also can issue temporary Wi-Fi codes to visitors. Early customers included Pandora, FitBit, and Yelp. And though Gadea can’t confirm Uber is a customer, I know the data-happy company was an early customer because I’ve signed in there scores of times. Says Gadea, an ambitious software engineer at heart: “We’re building the OS for the office.”

As for the ick factor, Gadea is philosophical. Cameras are everywhere, he notes. At least with Envoy, only the company knows of your visit, compared with the old sign-in register. (I always make a practice of reading the log as I scribble my name; I still recall signing in at Hewlett-Packard and seeing that a team of Goldman bankers preceded me.) The system provides obvious security benefits. Schools track visitors, including parents who may or may not be authorized to check out children.

So Envoy is growing and effective. But it is an undeniable part of the surveillance economy. A spokesman told me after my visit that Envoy has “dozens” of Chinese customers but that the government hasn’t ever requested information from Envoy.

Not yet, anyway.

Adam Lashinsky

On Twitter: @adamlashinsky

Email: adam_lashinsky@fortune.com


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