Enterprise

The Grammarly tradeoff: Is better writing worth exposing business data?

Writing tools including Grammarly use data from users to train their AI. Some businesses, especially those making products or software, worry it puts their intellectual property at risk.

Grammarly screenshot

When people use Grammarly, it collects their data to train its machine-learning models.

Screenshot: Grammarly

People using writing assistants at work might love sending polished emails to colleagues or crafting smarter company social media posts. Their company’s IT and legal teams might not love the fact that some of those tools use their content to train their AI.

When people use Grammarly, a popular writing software, they grant the company permission to use the content they write in the tool to help adjust and improve its machine-learning models. Another writing assistant, Bramework, has terms and conditions requiring users to give the company irrevocable, perpetual and worldwide rights to use, reproduce and distribute the content they write when using the system.

Grammarly uses human linguists along with AI tools such as natural-language processing and machine learning to automate suggestions for ways to make writing crisper, more grammatically correct or even more diplomatic. Machine-learning models need data sets on which to train and improve, and Grammarly employs textual data from its users in the training data it uses to improve its products and identify new ways people might use them.

“User inputs such as suggestion, accept or reject rates help us identify adjustments we may need to make in the product,” said Shane Collins, a Grammarly representative. “In some cases, we may store some text to help us improve the product, though we do not store all text transmitted through Grammarly.” Collins noted that the company removes user account data and personally identifiable information from text it uses to train its natural-language processing systems.

But Grammarly also sells an enterprise version of its writing tool that’s used by businesses and their employees inside text editors or even in apps such as Slack. And that data use by Grammarly’s business customers could create intellectual property concerns, said Jumi Kassim, a patent attorney at law firm Patterson Thuente, who also has a software engineering background.

“They are taking copies of anything you’re typing into their system,” Kassim said. For instance, when people use the Grammarly plugin while writing an email, “You’re giving them permission to take a copy of that,” she said.

After this story was published, Grammarly objected to that description, saying that it does not "store the entire content of documents in their original form."

“How much it is a big deal for companies depends on what data they are working with,” said Kassim. For instance, she said that while at a law firm like hers, software would have to go through a vetting process to ensure it does not compromise the security of confidential client information, “I’m sure there are lots of companies where they don’t care if you use Grammarly or not.”

Some tech companies say no

For some companies with employees writing about products or proprietary information, the data use is a red flag.

“We have had some pushback from clients,” said Elissa Ennis, head of Client Success at Enshored, which provides customer service, sales support and content-moderation services. The company offers its clients access to Grammarly to help them maintain brand consistency by setting up a customized Grammarly style guide.

Ennis said that customers such as software makers that are concerned about competition are especially leery of using Grammarly. “That’s only happened, really, I think two times where someone's been a pass on it. They did their due diligence on it. They talked to Grammarly, they talked to our IT about it,” Ennis told Protocol.

Software giant Microsoft reportedly said no to Grammarly too. GeekWire reported in 2019 that the company prohibits employees from using the writing tool. Microsoft declined to comment for this story.

It’s another example of shadow IT, when employees or teams purchase or use software for business purposes that companies should have processes in place to manage. “Any time your business is going to use a new piece of software, there should be someone vetting what software is being used and looking at the terms of service to see: Are they using my user data, and how?” said Kassim.

Intuit’s rigorous assessment

Intuit did just that before using Writer, a Grammarly rival, to help manage text for user interface elements like buttons and alerts content.

"Intuit, like I would imagine many Fortune 500 companies, is super-concerned about security,” said Tina O'Shea, its director of Content Design and Systems. “We had to go through a super-rigorous checking process … The security team had to vet it to make sure nothing was getting out.”

Writer calls itself a Grammarly alternative. On its website, it makes a point of highlighting the fact: “What you write will never make it into our machine learning models.”

Instead of employing user data to train its system, Writer’s CEO May Habib said the company uses a proprietary data set incorporating synthetic data, or information generated for the purpose of training its models.

Grammarly has run up against skepticism from critics who question the tradeoffs of handing over content in exchange for wordsmithing superiority, even when it comes to personal use. Amid the scrutiny, the company has altered its terms and conditions to limit how it employs user data such as text and documents.

Ultimately, said Kassim, businesses might want to consider paying for premium versions of tools that take less data.

“From a risk-management perspective, there are times when you can get away with things that have no cost to the business versus times it makes sense to pay money,” Kassim said. “There’s value in having a reduced risk.”

This story was updated to include additional comment from Grammarly.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins