Email tracking: Can someone tell when you open their email?

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Have you ever ignored an email for weeks, only to reply with “Just saw this now!” when you finally get around to responding? If the sender of the email uses a tracking service, chances are they’ll know you’re lying.

Email trackers are exactly what they sound like: they’re software that tracks when emails are sent, and whether or not they’ve been opened. Often using code in the body of an email, email trackers can determine what time an email was opened, how many times it was opened, what device it was opened on, and sometimes, where you were when you opened it.

In other words, email trackers can reveal a lot of information — and they’re becoming more common.

Who uses email tracking and how common is it?

According to a recent report, more people are using email tracking software.

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Research by tech firm One More Company (OMC) found that nearly 41 per cent of all emails in 2017 were tracked.

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Email tracking software often use a web beacon, which is a small, usually transparent pixel image. This tiny image can be placed in the copy of an email, or within hyperlinks or fonts. “When a recipient opens the email, the tracking client recognizes that pixel has been downloaded, as well as where and on what device,” Wired reports.

OMC found email tracking to be the norm among consumer emails from companies, which includes things like newsletters and marketing material. The report found “a whopping 99 per cent of these emails are tracked by the companies sending the material.”

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Companies often use email tracking to see how many people click through links on things like newsletters and promotions, and use that data to determine reader interaction.

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This info can help companies figure out their email open rate, and learn the times and days when people are most engaged in their content.

PR companies may also use email trackers to see when people, like journalists, open their pitches and when to follow-up.

But email tracking isn’t just a professional tool. OMC reported that “twice as many conversational emails” — i.e. personal emails — were tracked in 2017 since 2015. The company says this is likely due to the growing amount of free tracking services.

This means that your friends and family may be watching your email habits, too.

Is email tracking a violation of privacy?

“There’s obvious privacy concerns here,” said David Zweig, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Toronto.

“We see this all the time where companies develop technologies that have a potential use, and they’re not considering the implications of the technology and the impact it’s going to have on people. Obviously, [most people] do not want other people knowing when they’re reading an email sent to them.”
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Zweig says the information that email trackers obtain is data that should remain in the hands of its owner. In other words, it should be an individual’s choice if they want others to know how they interact with an email or not.

“It’s not necessarily relevant [information] either,” he added. “I get emails all the time and I don’t always respond to them right away. Why is it relevant for someone to know if I’ve opened it and looked at it? I can’t always respond right away.”

There’s also the issue of safety. As some email trackers reveal IP addresses, it is possible to know where, geographically speaking, someone opened an email.

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According to a spokesperson from Streak, a tech service that offers email tracking, “depending on recipients’ settings for their device and email [account], [Streak] users can sometimes track city-level location data and/or basic device information.”
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Florian Seroussi, the founder of OMC, told Wired that they’ve been in touch with people who “were tracked by their spouses, business partners [and] competitors.”

“It’s the wild, wild west out there,” Seroussi said.

Email tracking may do more harm than good

There’s also the social conflicts that come with tracking someone’s messages.

Zweig points to personal and professional issues that can arise from email tracking, including making “inaccurate” judgments about people based on the idea that they are ignoring a message.

“You’re getting information void of any context,” Zweig explained. “There may be a case where someone is deliberately ignoring your email (and maybe they should be) … or maybe they’re taking their time to form a reasoned and rational response instead of responding right away.”

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Zweig thinks that employers who track their employees’ emails are also crossing the line. If a workplace does engage in email tracking, Zweig says they should let their employees know.

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“There’s no reason as to why you need to track how long someone takes to respond to an email unless there’s a major performance problem,” he said. “In most cases, that’s not the issue.”

Can you prevent your emails from being tracked?

There are services that allow you to monitor and block email tracking, such as Ugly Email. PixelBlock is an email extension that “blocks people from tracking when you open/read their emails.”

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But for Zweig, that the fact people are even tracking our emails is scary.

“At minimum, the companies who market this should be forcing people to identify that this technology is present, and is sharing information with the person who emailed you,” he said.

“These [services] have unintended consequences.”


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