You probably get emails every day, and spend a lot of time reading them. And whenever someone performs an action or does something in vast quantities, you bet the data giants have figured out a way to capitalize on it. For many years consumer privacy has basically gone unnoticed, and invasive tracking has grown viral.
Arguably, if you are someone who runs a business off of writing periodic newsletters that are distributed via email, you might want some statistics on how your newsletter is doing. Traditionally, this is achieved actively through some kind of survey with some kind of incentive, like “tell us how we’re doing for a chance to win a water bottle”.
Now emails are typically imbued with passive trackers either in the form of tracking pixels (which informs the sender when the receipient opens the email) and tracking links (which informs the sender when AND what links receipients click). Tracking pixels are usually less relevant these days since many web-based email clients will ask before loading images, and clients run by mail servers with an enormous number of users like Gmail (and soon iOS) may proxy the pixels ahead of time so the senders only see the IPs and metadata of the server.
Tracking links, on the other hand, have become much more invasive, to the point
where it’s impossible to avoid being tracked. You see it all over the web:
whenever you open a link, there’s almost always some kind of
stuck onto the end that identifies your particular instance of it. This way,
if you share the link with a friend, they just used the same code, and your
connection to your friend is traced by the website owner.
If this creeps you out, consider using a browser extension like ClearURLs, which recognizes these URL parameters that do nothing but feed information to the website owners and removes it for you.
But email tracking links are even worse: they abuse redirects to obfuscate the original URL entirely. For instance, you’d get links in your email that look like:
Where does it go? Wikipedia? Piratebay? There’s only one way to find out: by making a request to that server, giving up information about the time, place, client, OS, and all sorts of other information that greedy data collection companies are waiting to snatch up.
Of course, regular users notice nothing: these links are usually hidden behind buttons, text, or even the original URL itself. Once they click it, the website silently logs all the data it receives about the user, and then redirects the user to the original destination.
The senders usually aren’t at fault either. Sending email is tricky, with all the infrastructure set up to block out spam, so the majority of people who send bulk mail (newsletters, websites that need to confirm your email, etc.) all go through companies that handle this for them. Of course, being the middlemen who actually get the mail out the door, they’re free to replace the links with whatever they want, and many of these companies advertise it as a feature to get more “insight” into how your emails are doing.
Even worse, the original senders aren’t the only ones getting the info, either. These middlemen could hold on to the data and there’s no saying they can’t use it for other purposes or sell it.
Unfortunately, sending email isn’t really going to get any easier, partly because of the way email fundamentally works: without all of the security infrastructure in place, running your own email server could easily lead to abuse. Most people (justifiably) would not go through all that effort themselves.
Another possible avenue of thinking is to do what large mail companies did to oppose tracking pixels, where they would act as a mass-proxy for the links, opening them when they receive it, and transparently replace the unfiltered link back into the email so the user’s device and location aren’t revealed. But this raises its own issues: for example, what if the act of opening the original link performs some kind of action (e.g. click to subscribe, click to register, etc.)? Also, this solution only works for email that is not end-to-end encrypted. For end-to-end encrypted mail providers, there is no way to do this.
The only real solution here is regulation via either advancement in privacy-related open standards or legislature. It’s clear that without any kind of regulation, companies will continue to act in the interests of profit rather than the protection of their customers.
Devil’s advocate afterthought: should this problem even be solved? Maybe there’s a benefit to this whole tracking thing. My opinion on this is if you really want to develop a community of readers, offer an easy way to give feedback (or even go back to the incentive surveys), and if people aren’t giving feedback, then that itself is a reflection of the state of your readers.