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- 28th Jun 2023

Tech Insight : Email : Terminating Trackers

In this insight, we look at what email trackers are, how they work, what the main concerns about them are, plus how you can protect yourself from email trackers.

What Is An Email Tracker? 

An email tracker is a tool or technology used to monitor and track the activities associated with emails. It provides information about when an email was opened, how many times it was opened, the location of the recipient, and whether any links within the email were clicked. Email tracking is commonly used in marketing and sales to measure the effectiveness of email campaigns, gauge customer engagement, and obtain insights into recipient behaviour. 

Not all email services use email trackers and their usage depends on the specific email service provider or client and the settings chosen by the user. Some email services, especially those focused on privacy and security, may automatically block external images, or disable tracking by default to protect user privacy. 

How Do Email Trackers Work? 

Email tracking typically works by embedding a small, invisible image or pixel within the email content. When the recipient opens the email and enables the images to display, the image is loaded from the sender’s server. This loading process notifies the sender that the email has been opened. Additionally, the image can include unique identifiers that help identify the recipient and track their interactions with the email, such as link clicks. 

What Are The Main Concerns About Email Trackers? 

There are several main concerns associated with email trackers, including: 

– Privacy. Email trackers can infringe on the privacy of email recipients. Tracking pixels and unique identifiers embedded in emails allow senders to collect information about when and where the email was opened, as well as other user actions. This tracking can be done without the explicit consent or knowledge of the recipient. 

– Informed Consent. Many recipients are unaware that their actions are being monitored when they open an email. Transparency and informed consent are important ethical considerations, and the use of email trackers can raise concerns about the lack of explicit consent from recipients. 

– User Awareness. In some cases, email clients may not provide clear notifications or warnings about the presence of tracking pixels or the potential tracking of user behaviour. This lack of awareness can lead to a lack of control over personal data and a diminished sense of privacy. 

– Legal Considerations. Laws and regulations regarding email tracking vary by country. Organisations must comply with applicable regulations, such as GDPR (and UK GDPR), which requires obtaining explicit consent and providing clear information about data collection practices. 

– Trust and Perception. The use of email trackers, particularly in marketing and sales contexts, can erode trust between senders and recipients. When recipients become aware of being tracked, it may negatively impact their perception of the sender and the organisation they represent. 

– Counterproductive Effects. Some recipients may feel uncomfortable or invaded by the tracking of their actions. This discomfort can lead to negative reactions, such as marking emails as spam, unsubscribing from mailing lists, or developing a negative impression of the sender’s brand or organisation. 

How Can You Avoid Email Trackers? 

To reduce the likelihood of your emails being tracked and preventing senders from knowing when you’ve opened an email, there are several steps you can take. For example: 

 Disable image loading. Most email trackers work by embedding a hidden tracking pixel, which is typically an image, within the email. By disabling the automatic loading of external images in your email client or webmail service, you can prevent the tracking pixel from loading and notifying the sender. Check your email client settings for an option to disable image loading. 

– Use a privacy-focused email service. Consider using an email service provider that prioritises privacy and security. Some services, such as ProtonMail and Tutanota, have built-in privacy features that can block tracking and enhance your email privacy. Also, DuckDuckGo email protection is a privacy-focused email forwarding service. 

– Use a browser extension. There are browser extensions available, such as Ugly Email (an open-source Gmail extension), PixelBlock, Privacy Badger, Ghostery, and uBlock Origin that can help detect and block email trackers. These types of browser extensions work by identifying and blocking tracking pixels within emails. 

– Avoid clicking on unknown or suspicious links. Some email trackers operate by tracking link clicks. Be cautious when clicking on links within emails, especially if you’re unsure of the sender’s intentions or the authenticity of the email. Hover over links to see the URL before clicking on them. 

– Disable read receipts. Some email clients or services offer read receipt functionality that notifies the sender when you open their email. Ensure this feature is disabled in your email settings to prevent tracking of your email activity. 

– Use a VPN. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts your internet connection and can help maintain your online privacy by masking your IP address and location. By using a VPN, you can make it more difficult for senders to track your activities. 

While these steps can help reduce email tracking, they may not completely eliminate all tracking methods. Also, taking these precautions may affect your overall email experience or limit certain legitimate functionalities, such as displaying images from trusted senders. 

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

Email tracking has become a widespread practice in the business world, providing valuable insights into email campaign performance and recipient behaviour. However, with growing privacy concerns, many people prefer to be proactive in protecting themselves from having their personal or business emails tracked. 

For those looking to safeguard their business from email tracking, there are several measures that can be taken. For example, using an encrypted email service that prioritises security and privacy, e.g. ProtonMail or Tutanota offers end-to-end encryption, making it harder for unauthorised parties to intercept or track your email communications. Other measures businesses can take include: 

– Reviewing and updating email infrastructure and implementing technologies like Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Sender Policy Framework (SPF) to secure email transmissions and prevent email spoofing and unauthorised senders. 

– Training and educating employees about the risks associated with email tracking and teach them to identify suspicious emails, avoid clicking on unknown links, and promptly report any potential security breaches. 

– Disabling image loading in email clients or webmail services. 

– Using browser extensions that specialise in privacy protection, e.g. PixelBlock, Privacy Badger, or uBlock Origin to help detect and block email trackers and provide an extra layer of protection for the business. 

While implementing these protective measures is essential, it’s important to recognise the impact on companies that rely heavily on email tracking for marketing purposes. Blocking email trackers can result in the loss of detailed metrics such as open rates, click-through rates, and conversion rates, which are valuable for measuring campaign effectiveness. However, businesses can adapt by exploring alternative strategies to gather insights without relying solely on email tracking. Direct feedback mechanisms like surveys, preference centres, or explicit opt-ins can provide valuable information about recipient preferences and interests. Emphasising quality content and engagement strategies can also help drive customer interactions and by delivering personalised and relevant emails, businesses can encourage recipients to actively engage with the content, reducing the reliance on tracking data. 

It could be said, therefore, that in the business world there is a balance between privacy protection and gathering valuable insights that is currently needed to help senders create successful email campaigns while helping recipients protect their privacy.

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