“I JUST Stumbled on this email,” began the message, a lengthy overdue reply. However I knew the sender was lying. He’d opened my email nearly half a year ago. On a Mac. In Palo Alto. At night.
I knew this because I was running the email tracking service Streak, which notified me as soon as my message was opened. It explained where, when, and 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 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, each day. Over forty percent of those emails are tracked, in accordance with research published last June by OMC, an “email intelligence” company which builds anti-tracking tools.
The tech is quite simple. Tracking clients embed a type of code in your body of your email-usually in a 1×1 pixel image, so tiny it’s invisible, but in addition in elements like hyperlinks and custom fonts. Each time a recipient opens the e-mail, the tracking client recognizes that pixel has been downloaded, along with where and on what device. Newsletter services, marketers, and advertisers used the process for years, to gather data about their open rates; major tech businesses like Twitter and facebook followed suit in their ongoing mission to profile and predict our behavior online.
But lately, a surprising-and growing-quantity of tracked emails are now being sent not from corporations, but acquaintances. “We have already been in touch with users that have been tracked by their spouses, partners, competitors,” says Florian Seroussi, the founder of OMC. “It’s the wild, wild west on the market.”
According to OMC’s data, a full 19 percent of all “conversational” email has become tracked. That’s one in five of the emails you receive out of your friends. And also you probably never noticed.
“Surprisingly, nevertheless there is a vast literature on web tracking, gmail email tracking has seen little research,” noted an October 2017 paper authored by three Princeton computer scientists. This all implies that vast amounts of emails are sent every day to huge numbers of people who may have never consented by any means to be tracked, however are being tracked nonetheless. And Seroussi believes that some, at least, will be in serious danger consequently.
As recently since the mid-2000s, email tracking was almost entirely unknown for the mainstream public. Then in 2006, an earlier tracking service called ReadNotify made waves each time a lawsuit said that HP had used the merchandise to trace the origins of the scandalous email which had leaked to the press. The intrusiveness (and simplicity) in the tactic came as something of a shock, even though 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 turning up inside 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 by using it.” Gmail’s foray was the signal flare; when advertisers and salespeople realized they too could send targeted ads according to tracked data, with little lasting pushback, the practice grew more pervasive.
“I do not know of any single established sales team in [the web sales industry] that does not use some kind of email open tracking,” says John-Henry Scherck, a content marketing pro and 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 concerning spam. “Competent spammers will track any activity on your email since they often buy entire lists of addresses and definately will actively try to eliminate spam traps or unused emails,” says Andrei Afloarei, a pnifcc researcher with Bitdefender. “If you simply click any link in a single of their messages they are going to know your address will be used and might actually cause them to send more spam your path.”
But marketing and online sales-even spammers-are no longer responsible for the bulk of the tracking. “Now, it’s the main tech companies,” Seroussi says. “Amazon continues to be making use of them a whole lot, Facebook has become making use of them. Facebook is the main tracker besides MailChimp.” When Facebook sends an email notifying you about new activity on the account, “it opens an app in background, and today Facebook knows where you are, the device you’re using, the final picture you’ve taken-they get everything.”