Email Trackers

Email Trackers

In past episodes we have discussed how smartphones and their corresponding apps are able to track your location down to a very fine detail. Well, it now looks like your email can do the same and that old time honored excuse “I didn’t get your email’ does not apply anymore. Totally separate from the innocent and voluntary ‘read-receipt’ options you can initiate with some email programs, there now exists a much more insidious tracking ability to the standard email by including some simple lines of computer code within the email.

So it now looks as if the whereabouts of an email can be tracked with much more detail in the sense of when it was opened and with what device or computer. Studies from companies whose job it is to track the trackers found some disturbing things about how private emails are not so private anymore.

As soon as you open an email with a tracker code hidden or embedded in it,  it can identify where you are located, it can determine the date and time you opened the email, it can determine if you sent it to someone else, which kind of device you are using, which kind of platform you’re using (like Windows, Mac, or mobile) and finally it checks other hidden system logs that are used by your mobile phone.

So, historically, any form of marketing was for advertising purposes but slowly it then became a business tool to track the opening rates of emails to potential customers but now its becoming mainstream where business are tracking where and when employees open a sensitive email, competitors trying to track each other and social networks sending these emails to determine what time of day you are online. With so many trackers hidden within emails it’s now becoming a privacy concern.

There seems to be two different types of emails sent these days. One type that is a threaded conversation between people and the other which is an email trying to market or sell something. Based on the studies conducted email forensic computer engineers,  it looks as if almost all marketing emails and a portion of standard conversational emails will have some type of tracker in it which turns out to be about 73% of all emails they have scanned. And those numbers are based on scanning about 4 billion emails per year out of an estimated 250 billions sent. So, it’s a small sample but enough to indicate that email tracking should be a concern.   

There are so many harms I don’t no where to start. The easiest thing to do is to give you an example from the corporate world. Have you ever notice the emails that have disclaimers found at the bottom stating “this email is confidential information that is not to be shared” and, if it has a tracker in it, then the person who put the tracker code in it can tell if you forward it on to others which can get you in hot water depending on business’ policies.  

There are many tools available but none of them are really 100%. It seems to be a cat and mouse game where a tracker gets detected and blocked by a program and the same day the tracker was updated to trick the blocking program. The best way to ensure these trackers are not able to run is to turn off the ability to view images in your email program. Each email program handels this slightly differently and I know for most people, this might not be possible as we get so many images we need to view everyday. So, the next best thing is to be mindful of who is sending you the email taking into account the sender’s email address. And so, a good portion of standard conversational emails will probably not have one but just be aware that most marketing email will.




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