Internet privacy is an increasingly precious commodity which is difficult to protect. After fighting against the read receipts of instant messaging services, it’s now time to do the same with e-mail.
The battle for privacy is being waged everywhere on the internet. As well as attempting to flee from the espionage of governments and large technological companies, users who wish to protect their privacy on the internet are faced with a true minefield where every service conceals a trap. In late 2014, the above war reached its climax when WhatsApp enabled its notorious blue double check: if you read a new message, the marker changes colour and the contact in question knows you’re there, reading (and probably ignoring) what it says. And we won’t go into the ever unpopular “last seen time”.
That forms part of the history of the internet and the consequences are widely known. WhatsApp yielded to criticism from its users , who saw their privacy invaded and who preferred to go unnoticed , and it gave them the option of disabling any “informant”. No last seen time, no blue double check. However, WhatsApp is just the tip of the iceberg.
While Facebook’s instant messaging service was grabbing all the headlines, the struggle to protect Internet users’ privacy was still taking place in another field, in which there is, even today, a constant tug-of-war to avoid discovery: e-mails.
The situation is similar. Someone sends an e-mail and, after a few hours have gone by, wonders whether the recipient has read it and is not replying out of choice or whether he or she has not yet had time to open the e-mail in question. Fortunately, for the more impatient among us, tools were developed over a decade ago to enable us to track e-mails, whereby the sender knows when the recipient has opened them.
In addition, the current e-mail tracking services go much further and provide a vast amount of information. Thus, the person responsible for sending an e-mail is able to find out when and where it was opened, as well as on how many occasions. And that’s not the only thing. They also provide information on the number of people who have read the e-mail (or rather the number of IP addresses from which it has been opened) and even on whether the files attached to the e-mail have been downloaded or not.
The bad news for internet users who are keen to protect their privacy and who argue that when or where they view their e-mail inbox is nobody else’s business does not end there. As if everything the monitoring tools are capable of doing were not enough, we have to add that, unlike the situation with WhatsApp, there is no simple and single way of disabling the tracking services . Besides, the list of companies which offer these trackers is endless: GetNotify, bananatag, HubSpot, Mixmax…
Not everything is lost. Actually, there is a war in our inboxes because those who prefer not to be controlled by tools to monitor e-mails still have a number of resources at their disposal to defend themselves with. Image blocking and quite a few other services are the weapons with which we can protect the little privacy which remains on the Internet.
To begin with, Google allows users of Gmail, its e-mail service, to avoid these trackers by means of a simple (although too extreme) option: prohibiting by default the external images accompanying e-mailsfrom being displayed. The tracking tools are thus disabled because most of them insert an image with just one pixel into each e-mail sent , which acts as a tracker. When the recipient opens the e-mail, the pixel is downloaded and the service obtains the data necessary for informing the sender of everything related to it, before and after.
However, this option offered by Google (one any user can choose by going to “Settings” via the cogwheel icon which appears in the top right-hand corner of the Gmail page) means that any photo which reaches us by e-mail is not displayed. In each e-mail users are asked if they wish to view the images and, if so, the tracker can start operating under camouflage together with the sending of any humorous GIF.
But, beyond Mountain View’s e-mail resource, others have emerged over the years from the shadow of the countless number of tools for monitoring the status of sent e-mails, designed precisely to block the latter, or at least warn us of their presence.
This is the case of Ugly Email, a Gmail extension which, according to the service, safely slips into your e-mails in search of the dreaded informant. In the event that it has a tracker, the e-mail will automatically appear marked with an eye in the Gmail inbox to warn the user: if you open it, you may get caught.
Other examples are those offered byPixelBlock and Trackbusters. Both guarantee the same thing: they analyse your e-mail inbox to distinguish between the messages which are being tracked and those which aren’t. They also claim to block any tool which gets anywhere it shouldn’t. On the opposing side, of course, some of the companies responsible for e-mail tracking state that these defence mechanisms are not always effective in their attempts to put an end to this subtle form of espionage.
One way or another, the truth is that the blue double check controversy had a much simpler outcome. The real privacy war is being waged in our e-mail inboxes because of a virtually invisible marker. To track or to avoid being tracked, that is the question.