“I JUST Stumbled on this email,” began the message, an extended overdue reply. But I knew the sender was lying. He’d opened my email nearly 6 months ago. On a Mac. In Palo Alto. At night.
I knew this because I used to be running the email tracking service Streak, which notified me as soon as my message had been opened. It explained where, when, and also on what type of device it was read. With Streak enabled, I felt like an inside trader whenever I glanced at my inbox, privy to details that gave me maybe a touch too much information. And I certainly wasn’t alone.
There are some 269 billion emails sent and received daily. That’s roughly 35 emails for every person on the planet, every day. Over 40 percent of these emails are tracked, in accordance with a study published last June by OMC, an “email intelligence” company that also builds anti-tracking tools.
The tech is fairly simple. Tracking clients embed a collection of code in the body of the email-usually in a 1×1 pixel image, so tiny it’s invisible, but also in elements like hyperlinks and custom fonts. Each time a recipient opens the e-mail, the tracking client recognizes that pixel has been downloaded, as well as where and on what device. Newsletter services, marketers, and advertisers have used the technique for a long time, to collect data regarding their open rates; major tech brands like Facebook and Twitter followed suit inside their ongoing pursuit to profile and predict our behavior online.
But lately, an unexpected-and growing-variety of tracked emails are sent not from corporations, but acquaintances. “We have been in contact with users that were tracked by their spouses, business partners, competitors,” says Florian Seroussi, the founder of OMC. “It’s the wild, wild west out there.”
According to OMC’s data, a complete 19 percent of all the “conversational” email has become tracked. That’s 1 in 5 of the emails you get out of your friends. And also you probably never noticed.
“Surprisingly, while there is a huge literature on web tracking, free email tracker for gmail has seen little research,” noted an October 2017 paper authored by three Princeton computer scientists. All of this implies that billions of emails are sent every single day to millions of people who may have never consented by any means to be tracked, but they are being tracked nonetheless. And Seroussi believes that some, a minimum of, are in serious danger as a result.
As recently because the mid-2000s, email tracking was almost entirely unknown to the mainstream public. Then in 2006, an early tracking service called ReadNotify made waves whenever a lawsuit revealed that HP had used the item to trace the origins of the scandalous email that had leaked for the press. The intrusiveness (and simplicity) from the tactic came as something of a shock, although newsletter services, salespeople, and marketers had long used email tracking to collect data.
Seroussi says that Gmail was the ice breaker here-he points returning to the times when sponsored links first started turning up in our inboxes, according to tracked data. At that time it seemed invasive, even unsettling. “Now,” he says, “it’s common knowledge and everyone’s fine with it.” Gmail’s foray was the signal flare; when advertisers and salespeople realized they also could send targeted ads according to tracked data, with little lasting pushback, the practice grew more pervasive.
“I do not know of the single established sales team in [the online sales industry] that will not use some kind of email open tracking,” says John-Henry Scherck, a content marketing pro as well as the principal consultant at Growth Plays. “I think it will likely be a matter of time before either everyone uses them,” Scherck says, “or major email providers block them entirely.”
That’s partly to do with spam. “Competent spammers will track any activity on the email because they have a tendency to buy entire lists of addresses and will actively try to eliminate spam traps or unused emails,” says Andrei Afloarei, a pnifcc researcher with Bitdefender. “If you click on any link in one with their messages they are going to know your address has been used and may actually cause them to send more spam the right path.”
But marketing and internet based sales-even spammers-are no more accountable for the bulk of the tracking. “Now, it’s the key tech companies,” Seroussi says. “Amazon continues to be using them a great deal, Facebook has become using them. Facebook is the top tracker besides MailChimp.” When Facebook sends you an email notifying you about new activity on your own account, “it opens an app in background, now Facebook knows what your location is, the device you’re using, the last picture you’ve taken-they get everything.”