Your email is spying on you. Here’s how it’s done

Emails are less interactive than text messages; you don’t usually know if someone has read them unless or until you get a reply. At least, that’s the case for personal correspondence, but what of the mountain of commercial mail that clogs up your inbox?

Your email is spying on you

Although it’s not immediately obvious, bulk messages from automated accounts are capable of telling their senders a great deal about the way you have interacted with them. Did you open the message or bin it? If you opened it, did you click on a link within? It’s likely that whoever targeted you will know the answers to those questions and more within a matter of seconds. They can also tell from your computer’s address on the internet roughly where you are, in order to try to sell you something else.

If you’ve ever received a message or phone call from someone who “noticed” that you had opened their previous email but not replied – that’s how they knew.

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It’s a type of activity that slips under the radar of many users, because emails are not required to display the EU-mandated privacy notices that infest websites these days. But they are every bit as intrusive.

A review earlier this year calculated that two-thirds of emails sent to the personal accounts of participants contained a hidden “spy pixel” – a tiny image stored on the sender’s computer system which is invisible or unnoticeable on normal viewing. It contains a snippet of code that does a similar job to a “cookie” on a website, telling the sender if and when an email has been opened, how many times it has been viewed, and on what kind of device. The information is fed back to the sender and analysed by software to determine as much as possible about your daily habits

It’s insidious but it’s not a scam. Among the respectable brands the survey found to be using tracking pixels were many of the big supermarkets, phone companies and at least one bank. None of them is acting illegally, and they collect less information about you by email than from your other interactions with them. But it would have been nice to be asked first.

Your options for blocking tracking pixels are currently limited. Apple is introducing “mail privacy protection” later this year but it won’t be enabled by default; you’ll have to find the option in settings and turn it on. Many other email services offer an option to hide external images, but doing so will also remove pictures that are legitimately part of the message’s content. In order to see those, you’ll have to download them manually. You can also choose to display messages in text-only mode by turning off the option to download them in the web language of HTML – but you will risk losing much of the content.

Gmail users are better protected than most, since images are stored on Google’s computers rather than on those of the sender. It means that while Google itself can theoretically track your movement, the original author can not.

There are moves afoot to legislate on the use of tracking pixels, but the reality is that data collection is a fact of modern life, even for those who never use the internet. Your supermarket loyalty card, for instance, is literally a mine of information. And while snooping emails are undoubtedly an invasion of privacy on some level, they are probably less trouble than having to click a cookie notice every time you open one.

The best course of action is to send messages you find unhelpful to your spam folder. The senders will soon get the message.

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