Spark

You give away private data just by opening your email

With a new crop of hidden email trackers, you don't know whether anyone, from your dentist to your daughter, is being notified when you open an email they send you.
You can give away your location merely by opening an email - even if you don't click on any links within it. (Kevin on Unsplash)
Listen15:00

We're all smart enough to know not to click on links in email that looks suspicious, right?

Turns out that's not good enough.

In fact, you give away where you are, what kind of device you're using, and other personal information just by opening it.

Oh, and if you forward the email to someone else? The same thing happens to them, too.

That's all thanks to a new proliferation of email tracking software, which allows senders from Facebook to your best friend to collect that information as soon as you open the message.

Advertisers have been tracking e-mail for years, says Florian Seroussi, the CEO of One More Company, which researches email tracking and makes anti-tracker software.
Florian Seroussi (evercontact)

In a study earlier this year, he found that the tracking of so-called "conversational" emails -- like the kind you might send to your spouse -- are being tracked more and more. "The number is going up by about 20 per cent a month," he says. "It's doubling every year."

He qualifies that his company has only tracked about four billion of the more than 250 billion emails that are sent every year. But of those four billion, he found that 71 per cent were tracked. And, since 100 per cent of commercial e-mails are tracked, it means a staggering number of personal emails are also being analyzed, too.

What does this mean?

Well, for starters, the old excuse of, "I didn't get your email" may result in you being caught in a lie, because anyone can add a free tracker to their email.

But the issue can be a lot more dangerous than that.

They know exactly where you are.- Florian Seroussi

Because the tracker records where you are when you open an email, the sender could figure out your patterns of movement, and, say, break into your house when they know you're not at home, Florian says. These types of so-called "phishing" emails - ones that appear, at first look, to be from your bank, for example - are the most dangerous.

There is software that can block the trackers, but Florian concedes that it's "a game of cat and mouse" when it comes to keeping up with tracking technology.


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Florian believes the issue is becoming serious enough that consumers will ask large email services like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, to take measures to prevent tracking.

Google, for example, is now sending some trackers the location of its servers, rather than the those of the end user, but even that isn't foolproof.

"And as soon as you click on a link in an email, it's back to square one, and they know exactly where you are."

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