Email tracking endemic, says study

Originally published at: Email tracking endemic, says study | Boing Boing


I have a bulletproof method of evading email tracking. I don’t read my email.


Almost* makes me nostalgic for the days of Read Receipts, which are at least ignorable. Emails sent with the double-whammy of Read Receipts and the “Important” flag set are without fail useless garbage.

*not at all, really


The proper name should be, Email Stalking.


I’m in marketing, so maybe I’m just numb to this kind of thing. But I guess I’m surprised that everybody wouldn’t just assume that there is an equivalent to website analytics for email. Emails are just small webpages.


Showing my ignorance but if my gmail settings for an email are to not display images, does the spy pixel still work and send info back to the sender that I opened the email etc?

(Yeah, I know that using gmail is part of the problem…)


Even as a public-good nonprofit, we rely on email stats to justify funding and understand how best to use our limited funds to reach out and offer services. If email tracking goes away, I’m sure the pressure would arrive to just lean more heavily on social media…

All that to say that the expectation of data is systemic, and so a systemic solution that levels the playing field would be nice. I actually love the idea that our google analytics could be undercounting due to people disallowing cookies, and wish it became so prevalent that I would no longer be asked “how many more people saw our blogs posts this month! Should we move the button and make it bigger?”


There is a key technological difference, which is that emails are “pushed” from their originator while webpages are always “pulled”. Reading an email is not necessarily equivalent to visiting a webpage at all!

To show me a webpage, my browser needs to actively ask the server that hosts the page to send it to me. Naturally, the server might (and almost certainly does) log that I requested it.

When someone sends me an email, their mailer program talks to my mailserver and says “Here’s a message for @nodolra”, and my mailserver files it into my mailbox - whether or not I ever actually get around to reading it. If I do choose to read it, the contents of the message are stored on my mailserver - so at the time I choose to open it, there’s no need for my mail reader program to talk to sender of the message at all.

Where things get complicated is with HTML emails, which can contain content (such as embedded images) which is not actually part of the message, but rather, pulled in by URL from the Web. When such content is present, in order to display it, my mail reader program does need to talk to a server, which effectively announces that I have opened the email (including what time I opened it and approximately where I was at the time).

That is the mechanism which “tracker pixels” use - they are just very small, unnoticeable images in otherwise text-based emails which exist only to cause your mail reader program to make a request to a server when the message is opened. (Any image or remotely-hosted embedded content can be used for that purpose, so an email which is full of images need not use a “tracker pixel” at all!)

I set my mail reader to not load remote content by default. When I open an HTML-based email, often there are a lot of boxes where images would be. If I choose, I can opt into loading the images on a per-message basis.


It sounds like it would be easy to poison their wells.

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N=1, for what it’s worth.

I read basically everything without loading images and whatnot. I read all the messages from a particular charity I give to, but like I mentioned, without loading images. They sent me a message recently saying that since I don’t read their emails, they can stop sending them. At least for this particular email process, with a regional food bank, not loading images avoids the tracking.


Not downloading images automatically is a really handy feature in Thunderbird.


I think many e-mail and web-mail clients have that option. Too bad it isn’t enabled by default with user-education alert if they want to turn it on.

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I can’t be sure if I set it that way myself or if it was default, by my gmail account doesn’t load images unless I tell it to, specifically because of this sort of nonsense.

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