I stopped relying on email a while ago. It became a spammy landscape of screaming advertisements, a place with less text and more images, where I had a better chance at finding a shopping idea than an intellectual one. It felt like a relic of the 1990s, in the age of social networks, browser-based messaging, and interactive media.

But it’s still holding our attention. It’s still an engagement measurement tool — for marketers moreso than for us, it seems.

Every email you open…

Every time you open a piece of email, you may inadvertently, quietly, very accurately tell the sender a lot about you:

  • when you opened the email
  • where you opened the email — which network were you on? were you at home, at work, at the coffee shop, on the road, in a grocery store?
  • how you opened the email — which program did you use? was it on your phone or your laptop?

What’s not always obvious, though, is the implications this tracking behavior has for your network of contacts: whomever you forward that message to also becomes a target of the trackers. All of their activity — the when, where, how, etc. — is immediately sent to the trackers when they open that cute email you decided to forward along, not knowing what it really contained.

Take this author’s experience for instance:

My email had been opened almost immediately, inside Cupertino, on an iPhone. Then it was opened again, on an iMac, and again, and again. My messages were not only being read, but widely disseminated. It was maddening, watching the grey little notification box—“Someone just viewed ‘Regarding book interviews’—pop up over and over and over, without a reply. […]

That seemed crazy, so I emailed Streak to ask about the accuracy of its service… I was told that Streak is “very accurate,” as it can let you know what time zone or state [and IP address and operating system] your lead is in… but the public might chafe if it knew just how accurate that data was—and considered what it could be used for besides honing sales pitches.

… and no one is safe!

Even the highest elected officials are subject to this information extraction:

“During the 2016 election, we sent a tracked email out to the US senators, and the people running for the presidency,” Seroussi says. “We wanted to know, were they doing anything about tracking? Obviously, the answer was no. We typically got the location of their devices, the IP addresses; you could pinpoint almost exactly where they were, which hotels they were staying at.”

It’s location-aware email. Combine that with other data known related to your email address…

So, if you sign up for a newsletter, even from a trusted source, there’s a one in three chance that the email that newsletter service sends you will be loaded with a tracking image hosted on an outside server, that contains your email address in its code… to be shared with tracking companies, marketing firms, and data brokers like Axiom, if you as much as open an email with a tracker, or click on a link inside.

“You can compare it to the Experian data leak, which exposed people’s social security numbers, and could cause fraud. In my mind, this leak would be even worse. Because it’s not just financial fraud, but intimate details of people’s lives.”

This is definitely something we all should be aware of.

Go read the full story at Wired.