“I JUST CAME across this email,” began the content, a lengthy overdue reply. But I knew the sender was lying. He’d opened my email nearly six months ago. On a Mac. In Palo Alto. At night.
I knew this because I had been running the email tracking service Streak, which notified me the moment my message have been opened. It explained where, when, and on what kind of device it was read. With Streak enabled, I felt such as an inside trader whenever I glanced at my inbox, privy to details that provided maybe a touch too many details. And That I certainly wasn’t alone.
There are a few 269 billion emails sent and received daily. That’s roughly 35 emails for all on the planet, every day. Over 40 % of those emails are tracked, according to a report published last June by OMC, an “email intelligence” company that also builds anti-tracking tools.
The tech is fairly simple. Tracking clients embed a type of code in the body of your email-usually in a 1×1 pixel image, so tiny it’s invisible, but additionally in elements like hyperlinks and custom fonts. Whenever a recipient opens the email, the tracking client understands that pixel has become downloaded, in addition to where and on what device. Newsletter services, marketers, and advertisers have used the technique for a long time, to accumulate data regarding their open rates; major tech brands like Twitter and facebook followed suit in their ongoing quest to profile and predict our behavior online.
But lately, an unexpected-and growing-number of tracked emails are being sent not from corporations, but acquaintances. “We happen to be in touch with users that were tracked by their spouses, partners, competitors,” says Florian Seroussi, the founder of OMC. “It’s the wild, wild west available.”
Based on OMC’s data, a complete 19 percent of all “conversational” email is now tracked. That’s 1 in 5 in the emails you receive out of your friends. And you probably never noticed.
“Surprisingly, as there is a huge literature on web tracking, email tracking software has seen little research,” noted an October 2017 paper authored by three Princeton computer scientists. All this implies that huge amounts of emails are sent every day to huge numbers of people who have never consented in any way to become tracked, but they are being tracked nonetheless. And Seroussi believes that some, a minimum of, will be in serious danger consequently.
As recently since the mid-2000s, email tracking was almost entirely unknown to the mainstream public. Then in 2006, an earlier tracking service called ReadNotify made waves when a lawsuit stated that HP had used the merchandise to trace the origins of the scandalous email that had leaked to the press. The intrusiveness (and simplicity) in the tactic came as something of a shock, although newsletter services, salespeople, and marketers had long used email tracking to assemble data.
Seroussi states that Gmail was the ice breaker here-he points to the period when sponsored links first started showing up within our inboxes, according to tracked data. During the 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 too could send targeted ads based upon tracked data, with little lasting pushback, the practice grew more pervasive.
“I have no idea of any single established sales team in [the online sales industry] that will not use some form of email open tracking,” says John-Henry Scherck, a content marketing pro and also the principal consultant at Growth Plays. “I think it will be dependent on time before either everyone uses them,” Scherck says, “or major email providers block them entirely.”
That’s partly related to spam. “Competent spammers will track any activity on your email because they often buy entire lists of addresses and definately will actively try to rule out spam traps or unused emails,” says Andrei Afloarei, a pnifcc researcher with Bitdefender. “If you simply click any link in one of their messages they will likely know your address has been used and might actually cause them to send more spam your way.”
But marketing and internet based sales-even spammers-are no longer responsible for the bulk of the tracking. “Now, it’s the key tech companies,” Seroussi says. “Amazon has become making use of them a lot, Facebook continues to be making use of them. Facebook is the number one tracker besides MailChimp.” When Facebook sends an email notifying you about new activity on your account, “it opens an app in background, and now Facebook knows what your location is, the unit you’re using, the very last picture you’ve taken-they get everything.”