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Trust Me, You Don’t Want to Know What Happens to Email You Send

It’s tempting to use an email-tracking service, but their overall impact may not be great for your mind.

The Outline

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A few years ago, I thought I’d try using email tracking. After reading an article about the effectiveness of free email-tracking services like Streak and Yesware, I figured it would be a useful way to track my pitches and see which ideas worked and which ones were hot garbage.

At the beginning of our time together, Streak and I were fine. I would send out an email to an editor and watch when it opened, how many times it opened, and on what device it was opened on (the privacy concerns unphazed me at that point). I just liked that editors were reading my stuff.

But after a while, I noticed how tense I’d get if someone didn’t get back to me. I'd wonder, what did I do wrong? Why were they looking at my email 10 times but not responding? It made me question my self-worth and I grappled with whether or not I was good enough. I was allowing an extension to define me.

My experience made me realize that extensions like Streak can promote paranoia, frustration, and it can cause unnecessary amounts of stress. But most importantly, email tracking is evolving into a fairly ubiquitous technology that’s invading our personal privacy and affecting not only marketing emails, but our personal emails, too.

For those unfamiliar with email tracking, it is a technology first introduced in the early ‘90s that places an invisible image pixel into a sender’s email notifying them when an email has been opened or clicked. “The basic idea,” said Dr. Haitao Xu, an Assistant Professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences at Arizona State University focusing on the intersection of cybersecurity and user privacy, “is that every time a recipient opens an email, their browser will automatically download the invisible image pixel from the email tracker's server.” During this process, says Xu, the tracker’s server collects information about the recipient, allowing it to notify its client (or the email sender) when, how many times, where, and from what device a recipient opened the email.

The obvious implication of email tracking services is their gross breach of privacy — recipients are often unaware that they’re being tracked. This prevalent, secretive way of collecting customer data, which can infer a recipients geolocation, the device they’re using, and even the sleeping patterns of users, happens constantly. With mailing list emails, newsletters and other marketing-based emails, tracking resources are used a staggering 70 percent of the time. And what’s worse is that 30 percent of mailing list emails also leak a user’s email address to third-party trackers in order to create targeted ads to potential consumers.

In a revealing 2017 paper, three Princeton computer scientists found that “when users click links in emails, regardless of the email client, we find additional leaks of the email address to trackers.” The insidious nature of mailing list emails means that users who click on links or pictures in emails are at risk of having their information shared with multiple third parties without their consent. And many of these third-party businesses are paying big money for our information.

“Various businesses have a high demand for email tracking services,” said Xu, who conducted with University of California San Diego postdoctoral researcher Shuai Hao a 2018 study titled Privacy Risk Assessment on Email Tracking. “Such businesses include, but are not limited to, education, travel, financial, health, shopping, and software vendors.” The study also showed that about 58 percent of emails from travel businesses and 43 percent of emails from health businesses track emails; United Airlines and Staples specifically have used “at least eight or nine” different email-tracking services to access user data for customized marketing.

“We also found that it is those big companies,” said Xu, “such as Oracle, Adobe, and Google, that provide those top ETSes. Among the top 10 most popular email tracking services, Oracle runs four of them (returnpath.net, emltrk.com, responsys.net, bluekai.com), Adobe runs demdex.net and Google runs doubleclick.net.”

According to Sydney Li, a writer, and researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has written extensively about the privacy concerns that email tracking poses, invasive email tracking happens regularly over unencrypted connections. “That means any activity that’s being tracked, like link clicks, are all being exposed to whatever network you’re on. If you’re sitting at a place using Wi-Fi, people will know somebody at this email address has clicked this link,” Li said.

Li is also concerned about cookies, or parts of your online identity, being cross-referenced with other third parties whenever you click links in emails. Large organizations cross-reference “their version of your identity with other third-party versions of your identity. They’re creating this large profile about not only your web activity but then link that to your email subscription as well,” Li said. In addition, Li pointed out that third-party email tracking technologies are sharing users’ email addresses across different emails they open, and across different devices, and building a profile of their online life.

In order to guard yourself, Li recommends proactively opting out of tracking. Email clients like Gmail and Apple allow you to disable tracking from third-party resources in your settings, while Outlook and Thunderbird disable it by default. And, in the name of transparency, if you use tracking at work, it doesn't hurt to let coworkers know you're using a tracking service.

But aside from the privacy implications of email tracking, little research has been devoted to the psychological implications of tracking, especially as it applies to personal emails and professional/non-marketing emails. In a 2017 issue of Wired, Brian Merchant vigorously detailed his experience with Streak, revealing that while the technology is useful in determining when sources read his emails, it also violated the “social norms of email etiquette" by spying on friends and family. Merchant referenced data from a 2017 study from email intelligence business One More Company that claimed that “19 percent of all ‘conversational’ email is now tracked. That’s one in five of the emails you get from your friends. And you probably never noticed.”

Sa'iyda Shabazz, a freelance culture writer from Los Angeles, quickly learned the travails of email tracking. It took her only two weeks before she called it quits with the productivity software program Boomerang, which also has email tracking tools. Starting out as a freelancer in 2016, she installed Boomerang to track her pitches and to see which editors were opening her emails. She sent out her first pitch then watched the number of times her email was opened.

“The anxiety of sending a pitch to someplace like The Atlantic was stressful enough,” Shabazz told me. “I was sitting there watching how many times they allegedly opened the email, and I never heard anything back from them. It took awhile for them to get back to me. I was just like, ‘They’ve opened it 11 times. Why haven’t I heard anything? Does that mean they like it? Are they opening it on accident?’ There are so many things that are going through your mind.”

Soon, the anxiety of the clearly read-but-unanswered emails began to affect her mental health. What good was having this information if it only caused pain? Shabazz realized the stress wasn’t worth it and ditched Boomerang. “It was just getting nuts,” she said. “I had a million other things going on and I didn't need the stress of wondering why I hadn't heard back from anyone. I was asking: Does that mean they don’t like it? Does that mean I'm a terrible writer? Does that mean they loved it? I had these feelings enough as it is. I didn’t need more things to validate my crazy.”

Similarly, writer and copyeditor Antonia Malchik found that email tracking was affecting the way she answered emails. Though she never installed an email tracking extension herself, she felt reluctant to answer emails that she knew or suspected were being tracked. “I realized that people I know and corresponded with were using it,” Malchik told me. “Then it made me anxious. Are you seriously telling me that you can see every time I re-read this email, or open the email, and you’re sitting there wondering why I haven’t responded? It’s kind of like catcalling. It’s something that feels like it is demanding your attention and response.” With tracked emails sent by colleagues, Malchik felt an extra added pressure to respond to an email quickly. “Until I found out that there was a way to block Streak in Gmail, I wouldn’t open emails because I would get anxious about them being tracked.”

The anxiety that email tracking has caused for Shabazz and Malchik stems from the concept of technological anxiety. According to Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University Dominguez Hills, technology anxiety is an emotional response to how we use technology. It can predict one’s well-being, academic performance, sleep patterns, and technology use. On a more basic level, Rosen’s research has found that technological anxiety can stem from the world of social obligations built up over time through social media, text messaging, and email. We’ve conditioned ourselves to think “that when someone in our social sphere, whether we know them or not, tries to connect with us, it is our social responsibility to connect back with them as soon as possible,” Rosen said.

In fact, he said, our desire to respond immediately is almost Pavlovian, in that we respond to stimuli like social-media notifications and emails without thinking about what we’re saying. We’re compelled to check social media so often because we don’t want to miss out on something we should be responding to. “As for tracking email messages,” Rosen said, “if you know that your emails are being checked, if you know that people know when you read them, then it’s going to compel you to check an email faster.”

In the end, we just want people to get back to us. We want to be connected, even if that means secretly tracking people to see when they open your email. So, in the spirit of proper email etiquette, the moral thing to do is to let people know if you’re using a tracking extension. “It’s also good to let them know that anybody could be doing this to them,” Li said, “but that too few people notice.”

Stephanie Dubick is a freelance writer in Boston. She last wrote for The Outline about goth support for Donald Trump.

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This post originally appeared on The Outline and was published February 22, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.