That quick email check you just did?
It alerted half a dozen companies of your engagement, gave them your whereabouts, and informed them which device you’re using without you batting an eye. Don’t be surprised when your phone buzzes with a well-timed sales pitch in a few minutes.
Trackers are nothing new; once an email is opened, a single-pixel image hidden in the message relays a signal back to its originating server with a boatload of data. Their use is widespread among digital marketers and has extended to other professional circles and even private use.
Yet the most obvious question is often left untouched: Is email tracking… okay?!
Some would argue in favor, citing trackers’ functionality
The businesses sending you solicitations laud trackers for providing vital input on their audience and ensuring you receive relevant content. They can minimize superfluous emails, detect scammers, and ensure that Janice in HR received your message. Trackers have even helped settle an investigation into internal leaks.
Tracker-employing CRM Hubspot praises the improved communication they allow, declaring, “It’s not creepy; it’s context. If you could provide someone with a more personalized experience, why wouldn’t you?” In all fairness, they have a point.
Yet, when considering ethical legitimacy, the conversation turns murky
A Splinter article detailing the pros of email tracking admits “it’s easy to see how a stalker could use the same feature in an incredibly harmful way” while the aforementioned Hubspot offers an unconvincing pat on the shoulder in stating that “email tracking is only as creepy as the salesperson who employs it.”
The dilemma is best described by a Lifehacker article title: “How to Track the Emails You Send (and Avoid Being Tracked Yourself).”
What if someone exploits email tracking?
A technology that instantly provides a stranger with your online habits and immediate location is a gross invasion of privacy; if abused, there’s no telling how deep that rabbit hole could go.
University of Washington Law Professor Ryan Calo intricately explores the potential detriment of Digital Market Manipulation on a grand scale, categorizing the issue in terms of personal harm as well as consumer disadvantage. “Unwanted observation” and “embarrassment,” are common fears but equally likely are subtle manipulations such as unfair pricing spikes and individually targeted advertisements.
Calo exposes the underlying concern with tracking is it’s running “without alerting you that it’s happening,” a sentiment the article echoes in explaining “it is a matter of expectation and consent.” While websites have easily accessible privacy policies, email trackers are hidden, secretive, and often a point of ignorance. As long as they linger in the shadows, the legality of their practice and the limit of their danger remain ominously unclear.
Is transparency in use the middle ground solution here?
Should email trackers even exist in a world where personal privacy is highly valued? As it currently stands, we find it difficult to reconcile an invasive tool with ambiguous ethical implications, hence the creation of tracker-blocking Senders.
Also published on Medium.