I subscribe to many newsletters. I read most of them too. But the author won’t know because I have disabled the tracker which detects and notifies the sender when a subscriber opens their email. This is not a personal matter; I just don’t want anyone to know what I read, when, how many times I read it, the device I used to read it, and even where I was reading it. How about you?
Oh, you didn’t know that it was possible for the sender of an email to know all that about you just because you clicked open? He veryand it happens a lot — especially in marketing newsletters and emails. But trackers are not limited to them. Anyone can sneak trackers into your email; the service that does this is abundant and free. If you’re the kind of person who turns off read alerts on SMS and DMs, this may not be good news to read.
While it’s scary to think about your email reading habits being tracked, it’s not the only reason why you should consider taking some additional steps to protect your emails. Your email address has become one of the the best and most persistent identifier, and data brokers and marketers will match what you do with it in one place with what you use in another. That helps them build an increasingly comprehensive profile of your online (and offline) life. You may be fine with receiving emails from stores you provided the address for, or even those stores knowing if you opened their emails. You may not be so good with a bunch of other companies you don’t have a relationship with either. But that’s what happened.
There is also a safety factor. Email leaked in data breach all the time, and there’s a lot a persistent hacker can do with your email address, especially since email addresses often double as logins. If a company doesn’t have your real email address, you don’t have to worry about getting out of there if (or, really, When) the company was hacked.
The good news is that there are ways to better protect your email privacy. Recently released: DuckDuckGo, the privacy-first search engine provider, just opened it Email Protection service after one year of beta testing. Apple, Firefox, and Proton have similar offerings, each with their own pros and cons.
Here are some services and ways to make your email more personal and why you should consider using them. These are not the only companies offering this service, but they each have a reputation for protecting the privacy of their users. In some cases, that is their mission statement.
Disguise your email address
One of the best ways to protect your email privacy is also one of the most obvious: Don’t give out your email address in the first place. But email addresses are very valuable, so companies will do anything to get them. Maybe they will ask you to provide your email address if you want to order something, or they will put a great discount in front of you in return.
One solution is to use a service that gives you an alias email address, which redirects messages to your preferred inbox. That way, you can get all the emails (and coupons) in your real inbox without the sender knowing your real address.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is Apple”Hide My Email” feature. I use this, so I can tell you it works as promised. I get unlimited aliases and use different ones everywhere. But, as with all Apples, it works much better within the ecosystem Apple than outside of it. If you’re signed in to an iCloud account, using an Apple device, via Apple’s Safari browser, or using sign in with Apple, then Hide My Email will appear as an option on email requests. Creating and entering your fake email address is as easy as entering your real email address.
But if you use a non-Apple product or service, the process becomes much more time-consuming and annoying. Another drawback is that it costs money. You’ll need to have an iCloud+ account, which starts at 99 cents a month and includes other things, like expanded cloud storage. So while Hide My Email is a great feature for some, it may not be the best choice for all.
DuckDuckGo Email Protection, on the other hand, is free. And it’s available in most web browsers if you install the DuckDuckGo extension, which you can get through the DuckDuckGo site or your browser’s extension store (the notable exception is Safari, although DuckDuckGo says it’s in the works). After that, it will appear automatically as an option whenever there is an email prompt, similar to Hide My Mail. You get as many aliases as you want, setup is simple, and there are a few other features I’ll cover later.
There are also Firefox Relay, which has both free and paid options. The free one only gives you 5 aliases, while the paid one has unlimited addresses. It’s 99 cents per month, although Firefox says that price point will only be available for a limited time. Also, the browser extensions you need to easily use the Relay in email prompt are not available in all browsers. Finally, you must have or create a Firefox account to use it. That’s easy enough to do, but it’s also an extra step you might not want to take when signing up for a service that should help you avoid giving away your data when setting up your account.
Lastly, Proton — known for its encrypted email service — now offer the ability to create aliased email addresses with the paid Proton Mail plan, which starts at $3.99 per month. The cheapest option only gives you 10 aliases, so if you plan on using a different email for all of them, it won’t be enough.
If you don’t want the hassle of going through an alias service, you can always create your own alternative account at whatever email provider you use and set it up for anything you don’t want to give your real email address to. This will reduce the amount of junk email you get in your actual inbox, but if you use that one email address often enough in sufficient places, it will identify you as much as your actual email address.
Block that tracker
Whether you provide your real email address or through an alias, you may not want email senders to know if and when you read their messages. They can learn a lot about you just from that. This tracking happens via tiny thumbnails — pixels, basically — embedded in the email. When you open the email, it makes a call to the server where the image is hosted, which tells the tracking service that you opened the email, how many times you opened it, when you opened it, some info about the device you are using. open it, and maybe even your IP address (many email providers have truncated it; Gmail, for example, routes image requests through its servers, masking your IP address).
Some of the same companies that offer email aliases also have tracker blocking services. Apple launched its tracker blocking feature, Mail Privacy Protection, last year with iOS15. The good news is that Mail Privacy Protection is free and easy to activate — either you get a prompt the first time you open Mail asking if you want to enable it, or a problem finding it in your settings. The bad news is that it only works in Apple’s Mail app.
Proton mail service enable tracker protection by default and available with free and paid tiers. It will tell you which trackers are blocked and who they are from, giving you the opportunity to spy on companies that are spying on you. But tracker protection is only available on the Proton website. Proton says it will be coming to the mobile app soon.
DuckDuckGo Email Protection Service is not tied to any single company or operating system. It detects and filters trackers before they reach your (real) inbox. It also removes the tracker from the link with the email, and it will tell you if the email contains the tracker and who they came from. Just to give you an idea of how widespread these trackers are: DuckDuckGo says about 85 percent of the emails that went through its new service during the Email Protection beta phase contained trackers.
Firefox Relay’s free and premium tiers also remove trackers. Note that DuckDuckGo and Firefox options only remove trackers from emails that go through them; that is, emails that come in via the email alias you created with their service. They don’t remove trackers from emails that go directly to your real email address.
Lastly, you can always go the DIY route by going into your email settings and making sure that you have opted out of downloading images automatically. In Gmail, for example, you can do this by going to Settings > General > Images > Ask before displaying external images. The downside of this method is that your email may look like a sea of corrupted image icons, because not only are you blocking trackers, you’re also blocking all externally hosted images, even if they are completely harmless.
Final note: While these services and techniques will definitely protect your privacy to some extent, none of them are foolproof. If there’s identifying information attached to your alias email address — perhaps you created an account using it and then ordered something to be delivered to your real physical address using your real name — it shouldn’t be difficult for the data broker to match it back to you. While tracker blockers are effective, there’s always a chance that marketers and the tracking services they use will find other ways to track you through your email. And then we’ll start the whole process of figuring out how to block that tracker all over again.