Emails make the world go round. Whether you’re shooting off a life-changing job application or finally receiving a long-awaited alert notifying you about a PS5 restock, emails are a powerful tool for information. They are the lifeblood of companies big and small, and are sometimes the only means to keep in contact with those we care about.
If cult classic You’ve Got Mail has taught us anything (other than Tom Hanks’ Joe Fox being a ruthless businessman), it’s that receiving and replying to messages can make or break businesses — and hearts. But Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly could have conquered the trials and tribulations of modern electronic communication far sooner if she turned to email tracking.
With email tracking, users can dispatch an email and know if their message has been opened or clicked on; it’s similar to the oft-dreaded two blue ticks on WhatsApp messages that were sent days ago without a reply. However, email tracking takes it a step further by offering the tools to capture data on how many times the email is opened, when it’s opened, where it’s opened, the time spent reading it, as well as click-throughs on links and attachments.
While this sounds intrusive, it is generally a harmless tool used by the most well-known companies and brands to gain valuable insight into what their recipients enjoy reading and if their products are a hit. Heck, the company you work at is in all likelihood tracking those weekly newsletters.
In the hands of mischievous minds, however, email tracking can be used to fill your inbox with annoying spam and malicious phishing emails. What’s more, it can be used to delve into personal data with a simple click, and all it takes is one invisible pixel. That is a very “Joe Fox” move.
What is email tracking?
Email tracking is the process of tracking sent emails and monitoring the recipient’s activity with them. Often used via your inbox or browser extensions, the tracking software adds a small .GIF or .PNG file in the form of a 1×1 pixel into an email or HTML code of a website. This “spy pixel,” as messaging service Hey puts it, can be found in the header, footer or body of an email. They are impossible to see with the naked eye, meaning anyone can use email tracking without you even batting an eyelid.
As soon as the receiver opens the bugged email, this tiny image is downloaded from the sender’s server, effectively notifying them that the email has been opened and, more importantly, that the email account is active. This practice isn’t hard to come by, as a Princeton University study on email tracking points out that as many as 70% of corporate mailing lists contain tracking technology, with many being from Google-owned third parties.
“We assembled a corpus of commercial…
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