Is Email Tracking The Next Big Privacy Concern?

Wired magazine has come out with a damning piece on a widely used but little studied email capability: Tracking.

Author Brian Merchant subscribed to the tracking service Streak, and was astounded when it told him when an email he sent was opened, and on what kind of device. "I glanced at my inbox, privy to details that gave me maybe a little too much information," he writes. 

Merchant goes on to cite research by One More Company (OMC), showing that 19% of all email tracking is done “not by corporations, but acquaintances.”

Predictably, the article moves right on from that to the use of tracking by marketers and social media sites. Not that this is any great mystery.  

“Unfortunately, this technology has been around for more than two decades and there’s nothing new to see here…literally,” says Ryan Phelan, VP of marketing insights at Adestra, and a board member on the Email Sender and Providers Coalition. 



For email marketers, tracking is the basic behavioral metric. You at least have to know if your email has been opened.

As Merchant reports, however, social media sites also track emails — in ways that may be insidious. They can, for example,, detect your location and other details you might not want anyone to know.

Earlier this year, OMC’s CEO, Florian Seroussi, told Email Insider that “most marketers have an ethical code: they track not just for marketing reasons but making sure you got the email.”

But that may not include the top trackers, or “offenders,” like Mailchimp, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Amazon, he added.  

“They know everything about you,” Seroussi said. “Why do they need to track emails as well? They’re not selling you anything. They’re selling advertising to third parties.”

According to Merchant, that data could include location and other details that you may not want them to know.

However, Phelan argues that all of this is part of a larger picture.

“The real conversation in 2018 will be the place of customer privacy,” he says. “As we see GDPR implemented in the UK and the existing changes in Canada under CASL, consumers not only want control of the information that is provided to online companies, but the right to their data.”

Phlean adds that “data is and has become an asset and something that could be seen as ‘owned.’ While the U.S. is not expected to enact any legislation around privacy, companies will have to start to think about the domestic effect of global change in the minds of consumers. 

In that light, tracking may not be much of a threat. It is surely covered under GDPR: If you can’t have any data at all without consent, that would include the gleanings gained from tracking.

And there are antidotes to tracking services like Sidekick, Streak, Mailtrack, Yesware, Mixmax and SalesforceIQ. For example, OMC offers a no-track solution called

“If you get a cold email, you can find out who’s sending it,”  Seroussi said. . We add it in the footer of email.” It also stops the tracker.

Who are the biggest users? The trackers themselves.  “They know about tracking, and they don’t want to be tracked,” Seroussi said.

Finally, since it seems to bother him, Merchant has the option of cancelling his Streak subscription, and stopping tracking his own emails. Which he did. 

It remains to be seen whether tracked opens will hold up in court, the way return-receipt postal letters do: A court recently held that email does not enjoy the same “presumption” of delivery as snail mail.

And we’ve yet to find out if tracking will become a major privacy issue, as one might infer from Merchant's article.  That said, he does give a solid overview of the practice. And there is one perhaps revelatory finding in it.

His email to Apple CEO Tim Cook was opened on a Windows desktop computer.  


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