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I loved email read receipts. Now I think they’re an invasion of privacy

Knowing when people have opened your emails feel like a superpower—a villainous one.

I loved email read receipts. Now I think they’re an invasion of privacy
[Photo: Austin Distel/Unsplash]

When I started using the email app Newton a few years ago, it wasn’t for the read receipts. What I liked most was its simple and clean design, its quick syncing across mobile and desktop devices, its handy features such as snoozing and scheduling, and the fact that its native Windows app wasn’t terrible.

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Before long, though, I started noticing the little checkmarks next to every outgoing email, signifying whether the message was read (blue checkmark) or unread (gray checkmark). Pretty soon I was obsessing over those indicators, even setting up push notifications to find out when people had seen my most urgent missives. Eventually, read receipts became table stakes in my mind for any potential Newton alternative.

“Table stakes” is also how Superhuman founder and CEO Rahul Vohra recently described a similar feature in his own email app. Superhuman has become the talk of the tech world thanks to a recent New York Times profile on how email obsessives happily pay $30 per month for the service, but the positive press soon turned to backlash over the app’s default use of read receipts. Mike Davidson, a vice president at InVision, led the charge on his personal blog, describing all the ways one might abuse this email superpower.

For me, the blog post was a wake-up call on how read receipts invade privacy. Just as you should be able to ignore a phone call or text message without telling the other person you’ve seen it, you should be able to read an email without alerting the sender.

Deep down, I knew this already. With Newton, I’d never actually admit to recipients that I was tracking them. Instead, I’d feign ignorance, following up a little faster in response to a gray checkmark (“Just making sure you saw this!”) or perhaps not at all if I knew the message had been seen. After discovering earlier this year that Newton’s privacy policy had changed for the worse under new ownership, I considered using Gmail’s website with the Boomerang plug-in as an alternative, but recoiled at Boomerang’s more ethical approach of telling recipients when they’re being tracked.

The reality is that email tracking works best when recipients are ignorant to its existence. I receive dozens of emails from PR representatives every day, and for years I was oblivious to the possibility that they were tracking my opens and link clicks. One day, however, I received a follow-up email in which the rep intimated that they knew I’d opened their original message. Since then, I’ve made efforts to delete emails straight from my inbox without opening them, or to at least avoid clicking the links inside. This accomplishes little from a practical standpoint, but it does help preserve some semblance of email privacy.

It’s hard to reconcile that mentality with my own email tracking, which I’ve used to monitor press inquiries, work-related pitches, and even some personal messages. While I’m not up to anything nefarious with read receipts, Newton so casually eased the feature into my life that I never stopped to weigh the ethics of it. And until now, I’ve been hooked.

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To Vohra’s credit, Superhuman has responded to the criticism of Superhuman by curbing its most invasive email tracking elements. Superhuman will no longer track the location in which recipients open emails, and it has purged its existing location information as well. The app will also disable read receipts by default, turning them into an opt-in feature. (Full disclosure: I received an invite to Superhuman a couple of months ago, but the service then rejected me for using Windows.)

Even with those changes, Superhuman still offers the fundamentally creepy feature of letting users know when someone has opened their emails. And it’s not alone. Newton and Spike both enable read receipts by default, and plug-ins such as Yesware and Mailcastr can add this capability to the Gmail web app. Read receipts are not technically difficult to implement, and no industry standards exist for blocking them. While you can disable email images or install web-based plug-ins to prevent tracking, those approaches bring their own trade-offs. You shouldn’t have to give up richer emails or use the Gmail website to avoid being tracked.

In lieu of technological solutions, maybe the best protection against email tracking is good old-fashioned public shaming. Lately, I’ve been looking to drop Newton for a variety of reasons, including the aforementioned privacy policy, stagnant app development, and sexual misconduct allegations against Andy Rubin, the former Google executive who now runs Newton’s parent company. Improvements to Gmail and an extension that simplifies its interface go a long way toward replacing what Newton has provided.

The only major difference is that Gmail doesn’t have built-in read receipts. Thanks to the scrutiny of Superhuman, I’ve come around to thinking that’s for the best.

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