“I JUST Stumbled on this email,” began the content, 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 once my message had been opened. It informed me where, when, as well as on what kind of device it had been read. With Streak enabled, I felt like an inside trader whenever I glanced at my inbox, privy to details that provided maybe a touch too much information. And I certainly wasn’t alone.
There are a few 269 billion emails sent and received daily. That’s roughly 35 emails for every person on the planet, every single day. Over forty percent of the emails are tracked, based on research published last June by OMC, an “email intelligence” company which builds anti-tracking tools.
The tech is pretty simple. Tracking clients embed a type of code in your body of the 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 been downloaded, as well as where and on what device. Newsletter services, marketers, and advertisers have tried the technique for a long time, to collect data with regards to 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-quantity of tracked emails are being sent not from corporations, but acquaintances. “We have already been in contact with users that were tracked by their spouses, partners, competitors,” says Florian Seroussi, the founder of OMC. “It’s the wild, wild west available.”
According to OMC’s data, a full 19 percent of all the “conversational” email has become tracked. That’s one in five of the emails you get from the friends. And you also probably never noticed.
“Surprisingly, while there is a huge literature on web tracking, gmail read receipt not working has seen little research,” noted an October 2017 paper authored by three Princeton computer scientists. All this signifies that huge amounts of emails are sent every day to huge numbers of people that have never consented in any respect to be tracked, but they are being tracked nonetheless. And Seroussi believes that some, at least, have been in serious danger as a result.
As recently as the mid-2000s, email tracking was almost entirely unknown to the mainstream public. Then in 2006, a young tracking service called ReadNotify made waves whenever a lawsuit revealed that HP had used the product to trace the origins of any scandalous email which had leaked towards the press. The intrusiveness (and simplicity) in the tactic came as something of a shock, despite the fact that newsletter services, salespeople, and marketers had long used email tracking to assemble data.
Seroussi says that Gmail was the ice breaker here-he points back to the days when sponsored links first started arriving inside our inboxes, based upon tracked data. At 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 also could send targeted ads based on tracked data, with little lasting pushback, the practice grew more pervasive.
“I do not know of a single established sales team in [the online sales industry] that does not use some type of email open tracking,” says John-Henry Scherck, a content marketing pro and the principal consultant at Growth Plays. “I think it will probably be dependent on 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 your email simply because they often 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 any link in a single of their messages they will know your address has been used and may actually cause them to send more spam your way.”
But marketing and internet based sales-even spammers-are no more in charge of the majority of the tracking. “Now, it’s the main tech companies,” Seroussi says. “Amazon has become using them a whole lot, Facebook has been using them. Facebook is the number one tracker besides MailChimp.” When Facebook sends you an email notifying you about new activity on your own 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.”