#22: I Spy With My Little Eye

The art of email tracking

Hi,

Greetings from a gloriously sunny and eerily quiet Dublin city.

Today’s post is a kind of follow on from last week’s post, where I gave you a brief lowdown on how we give up more privacy online than we might think.

Last week, I used the example of the video conferencing app Zoom, this week, I’m afraid to say, it’s your email.

Reading time: 3 minutes

"We need to examine the ramifications of the technology we are pushing into the world.”

Mike Davidson, former Vice President, Design, Twitter

With this newsletter I can spy on you.

Well, sort of - I can check a few basic statistics, such as when you first opened this email, how many times you view it, on how many devices and what links you click on.

Creepy?

I think so. That’s why I choose not to use the feature.

In addition to newsletter services, marketers, advertisers love this kind of technology.

And in many ways, it’s harmless. It's useful to gauge overall open and click rates. It can help give an impression of how popular an article or link is, and whether a mailing lists needs pruning.

The problem is, it’s still spying. You see, most people who receive tracked emails aren’t aware their behaviour is being monitored in the first place.

269 billion emails are sent and received daily, and according to a study published by OMC, an “email intelligence” company, over 40% of them are tracked.

Furthermore, tracking technology allows companies intrude on your privacy much in more invasive ways than the relatively harmless metrics available from my own newsletter service provider.

For example, insights can be gleaned from location maps, timestamps and device types amongst other private details.  The very act of reading an email can send a surprising amount of data back to the sender, even if you never respond.

Pixel tracking 

The technology used to track your emails is called pixel tracking.

It’s a pretty simple technology.

A line of code is embedded in a tiny image at the end of an email. When the recipient opens the email, the tracking client records this information and more.

Outside of a business case for email tracking, more and more individuals are using pixel tracking in their personal lives. According to the OMC's study, 19% of all “conversational” email is tracked. That’s one in five of emails you get from friends and family.

The potential harm this poses for those unaware of this intrusion is disconcerting. Here’s an example, adapted from an article by privacy campaigner, Mike Davidson:

An ex-boyfriend pens a desperate email. Subject: “I’ve been thinking about us”. He sends it to his former partner. She reads it when she gets to work in Downtown Los Angeles at 9am. She reads it again before dinner with friends in Pasadena at 7pm. She reads it again at home in Santa Monica at 1am. Over the weekend, she takes a trip to New York and reads it again. Twice. She decides not to answer the email, because her ex has stalked her in the past and she doesn’t want to communicate any further. But because of the tracking pixel, her email is always communicating, and it’s sharing info she does not want to send and doesn’t even know she is sending. She didn’t reply, but her ex still knows she read his email five times, including most likely in her bed. And he knows she took a trip to New York.

A few solutions

The simplest way to prevent pixel tracking working in your received email, is to turn off images. When you do this, it simply means, every image embedded in an email you receive, will need to be clicked to be viewed.

I’m fairly sure this is a standard feature in all email services, but for now, here’s how you do it in Gmail:

  1. In the top right of your Gmail window, click on the “gear” icon

  2. Select “settings”

  3. Scroll down to “Images” and select "Ask before displaying external images."

There are lots of other options too.

Here are two:

  1. A Chrome Extension called Ugly Email allows you to block trackers before safely opening your emails.

  2. Trocker is a Chrome and Firefox Extension which will alert you to trackers in emails and links.

Personally, I prefer to turn off images in my email than use a browser extension. It means I don’t have the constant distraction of alerts and warnings. However, if you’re concerned, I would recommend installing a browser extension like those mentioned above, just to see how eye-wateringly commonplace the practice of tracking your emails really is.

Conclusion

When we use email, we give up a lot more information than we might think.

Services like Gmail should be protecting its users from email tracking, by creating their own native version of Ugly Email. If more people were aware of the practice, I believe public opinion would would turn on this unsavoury practice, and just like I wrote about with Zoom, collective action could force companies to offer better protections.

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Until next week, take care,

Scott