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Wait, Are People Really Tracking My Emails?

Do you want to know how much time people spend ignoring your emails? Photo: Getty Images/Hero Images

On Thursday evening, Jezebel published an article that exhaustively outlined a longstanding piece of media gossip about the writer-slash-social-media-presence Lauren Duca. The thing that gave me pause was not the very widespread rumor about Duca’s professional conduct, but the disclosure that the author uses an email tracker — one that not only enables her to see whether or not a recipient reads her message and when, but also, how many times they look at it.


Of course, I knew that email trackers are a thing; a friend who works in PR once told me that she downloaded one to help her gauge which of us delinquent journalists actually opened her pitch emails, after which point I began responding in a more timely fashion. But, before yesterday, it had never occurred to me that the average sender might closely watch how and when I engage with their email after that initial open, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. After realizing you’ve been living under someone else’s surveillance, you will naturally have both suspicions and questions. Here, I will attempt to get you some answers.

What are email trackers?

Email tracking involves using software to monitor the emails you send, usually through the addition of a tiny 1 x 1 pixel image called a web beacon. When the recipient opens the file, the beacon loads, alerting the sender to who opened the email, and when, and on what device, and where. Which may definitely be more personal information than you want a faceless emailer to have on you, and with that in mind, I’m dismayed to report that the trackers are everywhere.

Email platforms like MailChimp enable users to send bulk email blasts to a wide audience, delivering data on which recipients opened the missive and how they interacted with its content beyond that first click. You will recognize this as email marketing, an inbox scourge.

Regular humans who have no reason to message thousands of addresses at once might find it more useful to track emails via an app or a plug-in that links to Gmail or Outlook. Many different variations on this theme exist: Some work like read receipts, and simply report whether or not the recipient opened your message by displaying a small check in your inbox after the fact. Others can tell you how many times your message has been opened and when. Still others give you insight into how the recipient engages with your email — whether or not they clicked the links, downloaded the attachments, shared with another IP address. Creepy or pragmatic, depending on why you want to track.

How common is email tracking?

There is a reason why I currently have 21,481 unread messages in just one of my many inboxes, and it is not negligence alone. It is the ubiquity of email marketing, the pernicious nature of list serves: You unsubscribe from one and three more pieces of junk mail sprout up to replace it. One More Company, an email intelligence outfit, released a chilling report on email tracking in 2017, which found that 85 percent of all emails consumers received that year were newsletters, 99 percent of which were tracked. Meanwhile, 16 percent of all “conversational” emails (which accounted for 31 percent of all emails in 2017) included tracking pixels.

Why would a person track emails?

According to BuzzFeed News, tracking originated in marketing, with companies’ desire to see who they’re actually reaching with their emails.

“For consumer emails, if someone opens, then that means they’re at least interested,” Jane, a senior digital marketing associate at a shipping, commerce, and technology company, tells me. She uses a platform called Salesforce to keep tabs not only on what percentage of recipients open her messages, but also what time of day they open them, and whether or not they click the link. If someone engages with her content, she explains, “I’m going to try to push them again, versus if they didn’t open, then that’s a waste of time.” Continuing to bombard people who ignore her emails, Jane added, risks lowering her “IP reputation” and diverting her straight to the spam folder.

Increasingly, other professionals have commandeered that technology from the sales world: the aforementioned publicist, for example, and the Jezebel journalist. It’s not hard to see what the appeal is here. Reporters might want to know whether or not a source is reading their emails and ignoring them; freelancers may benefit from some insight into whether or not their pitches have been seen or possibly buried in a busy editor’s inbox; job seekers might want to know whether or not their applications have been received and reviewed.

“It’s smart, if you’re a reporter or if you’re a PR person. It’s a part of your job to email people to get them to do X, Y, and Z,” Jane says.

How can I tell if someone is using an email tracker, and how can I stop them from tracking me?

But it’s also fairly unsettling: There are a number of people — trolls, for instance — I don’t want accessing data on when and where I’m opening my email. The best way to identify tracking and to stop it seems to be downloading a special browser extension. You have a few options.

UglyMail, for example, uses code to sniff out web beacons and flags emails that contain them, slapping an eye icon on these when they land in your inbox. Currently, you can only use UglyMail with Gmail on Google Chrome and Firefox, and only against select trackers. For added protection, you might consider the extension PixelBlock, which does exactly what the name suggests: Blocks that spy pixel when you open the email. It will also give you information on how many times a sender tries to track you. Additionally, you can stop Google from automatically loading images in an email. Or, you can do the thing where you let your mail pile up to the tune of tens of thousands of unread messages. It isn’t stressful at all, I promise.

Wait, Are People Really Tracking My Emails?