Here’s something you might want to think about next time you check your email: chances are, at least some of your messages are being tracked.
From how many times you open a message, the time of day, and even what city you’re in, the very act of reading an email can send a surprising amount of data back to the sender, even if you never respond.
That unsettling fact was recently thrust back into the spotlight thanks to a much-hyped email startup called Superhuman. The $30/month invite-only email software beloved by Silicon Valley VCs and “inbox zero” adherents is so hyped, there’s currently a waiting list more than 180,000 people long, according to The New York Times.
Then Mike Davidson, a VP at design platform Invision, pointed out that the email app had originally enabled its users to track who is opening their emails by default. The feature, which Superhuman dubbed “read receipts,” allows message senders to see exactly when their messages are opened, what kind of device recipients are using, and where they are. And unlike, say, iMessage read receipts, which are opt-in, Superhuman’s feature is enabled by default.
Davidson, who was previously VP of design at Twitter, penned a lengthy critique of Superhuman’s “spying” on his personal blog, saying Superhuman “has mistaken taking advantage of people for good design.”
In response to criticism from Davidson and others, Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra said the company would update its software so “read receipts” would no longer be enabled by default and location information would be removed.
But the fact is, Superhuman is far from from the only company quietly surveilling your email habits. Though it’s relatively unheard of for an email platform to offer this level of tracking by default, it’s astonishingly easy to embed tracking software into emails.
What is pixel tracking?
Most email-tracking programs use something called pixel tracking. Here’s how email marketing company SendGrid explains its version of the feature:
Open Tracking adds an invisible, one pixel image at the end of the email which can track email opens. If the email recipient has images enabled on their email client and a request to SendGrid’s server for the invisible image is executed, then an open event is logged.
So when one of these “invisible” images is added into an email, the person who sent it is able to keep track of how often you open the message. It’s also common to track whether or not you click on any links in the email.
Marketers love these kinds of tools for obvious reasons, but there are a ton of similar tools out there that anyone can start using. But just because it’s commonplace doesn’t make it any less creepy or less of a massive privacy invasion.
And while you might expect these tactics from email marketers, there’s something even more troubling when you consider the implications of people using these in their personal lives. As Davidson outlines in his blog post, email tracking could in some cases pose a safety risk to people who don’t realize they are being tracked just by opening their inbox.
Luckily, there are a few ways to block this type of tracking without ignoring your emails entirely.
Image blocking is your friend
One of the most straightforward ways to prevent email tracking software from working is to block images from displaying by default. This is a setting you can enable in just about every email service., though you should note that it means loading images in your email will require an extra click.
In Gmail, click on the settings gear to open up your email preferences. From the “general” tab, scroll down to images and check the box that says “Ask before displaying external images.” Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click “save changes.“
If you use a non-Gmail email provider, you should be able to find a similar setting. Just look for something that says something like “ask before displaying external images.”
It’s also important to note that if you use a third-party email client like Outlook or Apple’s Mail app to check your email, you’ll need to enable this setting in that email app as well. Again, you can typically do this in the app’s settings.
In Apple’s Mail app for iOS, you can disable images by going to the main Settings app, selecting “Mail,” and scrolling down to “load remote images.” (Instructions for disabling images in the MacOS Mail app can be found here.)
Track the trackers
If fiddling with your email settings is too inconvenient, or you’re extra curious about who might be keeping tabs on how often you’re reading your emails, there’s another option available as well. There are a number of browser extensions that will also block the tracking pixels while alerting you to which emails contain trackers.
PixelBlock is a simple Chrome extension that blocks images from loading and displays a red eye at the tope of messages when it detects a tracker.
And Chrome extension Ugly Email, alerts you to the presence of possible trackers in your inbox before you even open a message.
Even with extensions, some trackers may still be able to slip through, but they tend to be pretty adept at identifying the most obvious offenders. Using these is also a pretty eye-opening look at just how commonplace email tracking is.