Jezebel on Thursday published an exposé on prominent feminist writer Lauren Duca and allegations that she had anonymously sent derogatory emails to her co-workers while she was working at the Huffington Post. Though Duca did not provide a comment to Jezebel, she later posted a meme on Twitter featuring Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza eating ice cream with the caption “Whatever.”
As some on Twitter highlighted, the article described a clever, if somewhat invasive, reporting technique. Senior reporter Anna Merlan writes that she used an email tracker to monitor how many times Duca viewed messages seeking comment. Merlan explains:
Duca repeatedly viewed, but did not respond to, six emails I sent her requesting comment over a period of nearly two months. … However, I know she opened them because for professional emails, I use a tracking service, which shows how often they were opened; the service showed that Duca viewed every email multiple times from her iPhone, her Gmail account, and another mail client.
Even if you’re not the subject of a Jezebel investigation into your rumored workplace vendettas from 2015, it’s likely that similar tracking services are monitoring some of the emails you receive. They could come from individuals, but you’ll find most of them on mass emails like newsletters or promotional messages. Computer scientists at Princeton found in a 2017 study that tracking tools were attached to an estimated 70 percent of mailing list emails. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, email marketing software often enables tracking by default. These tools can help businesses and nonprofits measure the success of their campaigns, but they often don’t notify recipients of the tracking or provide easy options to opt-out. Marketers have also been known to call recipients right when they open emails. More advanced trackers are able to detect how long an email is open, how many other windows were opened when it was viewed, whether it was forwarded or deleted, and details of the recipient’s operating system.
There are a number of ways to block such trackers and continue to use the excuse “Sorry, I just saw this” about an email that’s been sitting in your inbox. The easiest precaution you can take is to ensure that your email client doesn’t automatically display external images in messages. Trackers often hide a tiny 1x1 pixel image in the body of an email and can detect when it has been downloaded, thus indicating that the recipient opened the message. If you use Gmail, you can simply navigate to “Settings” and select the “Ask before displaying external images” option for “Images.” On the iPhone, you navigate to the Settings app, tap “Mail,” and swipe left on the “Load Remote Images” option. On an Android, you go to your account in the Gmail app, click on “Images,” and select “Ask before showing.” Outlook and Thunderbird have these settings deactivated by default. Because other components like fonts can also alert trackers, you might want to take the extra step of disabling HTML. And if you want to snoop on the snoopers, you can also download a number of browser extensions that will both block trackers and notify you of their presence. A popular offering is “Ugly Email,” which affixes an eye icon onto every message in your inbox that has a tracker.
You should also be wary of links and attachments in emails, since they can also tip off a tracker. In fact, many services reportedly monitor whether newsletter recipients click on unsubscribe buttons. So if you want to unsubscribe, you’re potentially facing a Sisyphean dilemma in which you must decide whether you want to risk having your email address flagged as active and sent to a third party, which may subsequently sign you up for another unwanted newsletter.