Email Tips: My email inbox is full of newsletters. Most of them are also read by me. Because I have disabled the trackers that detect and inform senders when subscribers open their emails, their authors wouldn’t know it. This has nothing to do with personal information; I simply don’t want anyone to know what I read, when, how many times, on what device, or even where I read it. What’s your opinion?
You didn’t realize email senders could obtain that much information about you just by clicking open, did you? Newsletters and marketing emails are particularly prone to this, and it happens quite often. They aren’t the only ones who use trackers. It is easy for anyone to sneak a tracker into your email; there are many free services that do this. It’s probably not good news for people who turn off read receipts on texts and DMs.
You should also consider protecting your email account because it’s not just creepy to think that your email reading habits are being tracked. Your email address is one of your most persistent identifiers, and data brokers and marketers will see what you use it for in one place and in another. As a result, they are able to build a more comprehensive picture of your life online (and offline). If you gave your email address to a store, you might be fine with getting emails from that store, or even knowing whether you open the emails they send. The idea of a bunch of other companies you don’t know know it might not sit well with you. However, that is exactly what happens.
Additionally, there is the issue of security. It’s not uncommon for emails to be leaked in data breaches, and hackers can do a lot with your email address, especially since email addresses are often used as logins. Your real email address isn’t available to a company, so you don’t have to worry about it getting out there if (or, really, when) they get hacked.
The good news is that your email privacy can be better protected. Earlier this week, DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused search engine provider, released its Email Protection service after a year of beta testing. There are similar offerings from Apple, Firefox, and Proton, each with their own pros and cons.
These are some of the services and methods you can use to make your email more private. All of these companies have strong reputations for protecting the privacy of their users, but they aren’t the only ones offering these services. There are some companies whose mission statement is that.
Disguise your email address
Don’t give out your email address in the first place. This is one of the best ways to protect your email privacy. However, email addresses are valuable, which is why companies will do whatever it takes to acquire them. They might ask for your email address if you want to order anything, or they might offer you a nice juicy discount if you do.
You can use an alias email address and have messages directed to the inbox of your choice by using a service that gives you an alias email address. The emails (and coupons) would arrive in your real inbox without the sender knowing your real address.
Apple’s “Hide My Email” feature is perhaps the most well-known example. As someone who uses it, I can tell you that it does as it promises. My aliases are unlimited, and I use different ones everywhere. In the Apple ecosystem, it seems to work better than outside of it, as with everything Apple. If you are logged into your iCloud account, are using an Apple device, are using Safari browser, or are signed in with Apple, then Hide My Email will appear as an option. It is just as easy to create and enter your fake email address as it is to enter your real one.
It becomes more difficult and time-consuming if you use a non-Apple product or service. A second disadvantage is that it is expensive. In addition to expanded cloud storage, you need an iCloud+ account, which starts at 99 cents a month. Hide My Email may be a useful feature for some, but it may not be the best option for everyone.
The DuckDuckGo Email Protection, however, is free. If you install DuckDuckGo’s extension, you’ll be able to use it on most web browsers (the notable exception is Safari, but DuckDuckGo says it’s on its way). After that, it will appear automatically as an option whenever there is an email prompt, similar to Hide My Mail. There’s no limit to how many aliases you can create, the setup is easy, and it’s got a few other features I’ll discuss later.
You can also use Firefox Relay, which has a free and a paid option. The free version only offers five aliases, while the paid version offers unlimited addresses. You can get it for 99 cents a month, though Firefox says it will only be available for a limited time. It’s also important to note that not all browsers support the extension you’ll need to use Relay in email prompts. In order to use it, you must have or create a Firefox account. You don’t have to do that, but it’s an extra step you might not want to take when signing up for a service intended to protect your privacy.
With Proton Mail paid plans starting at $3.99 a month, users can now create alias email addresses with the encrypted email service Proton – best known for its encrypted email service. If you plan on using different emails for everything, the cheapest option won’t be enough if you only have 10 aliases.
It’s always possible to create your own alternate account on whatever email provider you use and put that down for all those things for which you don’t want to share your real email address. Using a different email address will reduce the amount of junk mail you receive in your real inbox, but the same email address will become just as memorable as your real one if you use it enough in enough places.
Block those trackers
It may not be a good idea to give out your real email address or use an alias if you don’t want email senders to know if and when you read their emails. Just by looking at that, they can find out a lot about you. The tracking is done by embedding tiny little images – a pixel, basically – in the email. A call is made when you open an email to the server hosting the image, which tells the tracking service that you opened the email, how many times you opened it, when you opened it, the device you used to open it, and your IP address (many email providers block this; Gmail, for example, routes image requests through its servers, masking your IP address).
Tracker blocking services are offered by some of the same companies that provide email aliases. With iOS15, Apple introduced Mail Privacy Protection, a feature that blocks trackers. Mail Privacy Protection is free and easy to enable – either you got a prompt when you opened Mail asking if you wanted it enabled, or you can find it in your settings. Unfortunately, it only works with Apple’s Mail app.
With both its free and paid tiers, Proton’s mail service offers tracker protection by default. The tool will tell you which trackers it blocked and from whom, so you can spy on the companies tracking you. Tracker protection, however, is only available through Proton’s website. According to Proton, it will soon be available on the mobile app.
No company or operating system is tied to DuckDuckGo’s Email Protection service. By detecting and filtering trackers, it prevents them from entering your inbox. Also, it removes trackers from links in emails and tells you if an email contains trackers and who sent them. As a measure of how prevalent these trackers are, DuckDuckGo says that, during Email Protection’s beta phase, 85% of emails contained trackers.
The free and premium tiers of Firefox Relay also remove trackers. It’s important to note that DuckDuckGo and Firefox only remove trackers from emails that pass through their services, namely those that come through alias emails you created. Trackers are not removed from emails sent directly to your real email address.
Last but not least, you can always modify your email settings so that you do not automatically download images. Gmail, for instance, allows you to ask before displaying external images by going to Settings > General > Images > Ask before displaying external images. Because you’re not just blocking trackers, you’re blocking all images hosted externally, even if they’re harmless. The downside of this method is that your emails will look like a sea of broken image icons.
As a final note, although these services and techniques will protect your privacy to some degree, no method is foolproof.
If your alias email address contains any identifying information – maybe you set up an account using it and ordered something delivered to your real address using your real name – a data broker won’t have much trouble matching it back to you. Tracker blockers can help prevent you from being tracked through your emails, but marketers and the tracking services they use may find another way to do so. Once again, we’ll have to figure out how to block those trackers.