The Inbox Arms Race – Is There a Downside to Tracking Personal Emails?

About a year ago, somebody mentioned that I should install software that would tell me when people who emailed me were tracking whether or not I opened, re-opened, or clicked on their email.

Sure, I thought. Takes 45 seconds. I selected Ugly Email. This browser extension monitors your inbox for tracking pixels from services like Yesware, Bananatag, and Streak. It then notifies you with a little ‘eye icon’ if they are present.

Couldn’t hurt to be reminded that certain opens and clicks were transmitting data back to the sender. Right?

But something I didn’t expect started happening. And over the past year, it’s been happening more and more.

I’ve discovered that people are using software that tracks my behavior while sending me ‘personal’ emails.

These aren’t emails from help-desks or email lists.

Some examples are: people asking if you want to hang out and grab a beer. Or sharing an interesting article. Letting me know that they’ve started a new business based on a recent podcast episode. Or seeing if I’m willing to swing by their conference next year. And, of course, for soft solicitations like, ‘do you think this story would be good on your podcast?’

I’ve also found service providers, like one of my lawyers, for example, to be tracking my behavior.

So why am I writing this blog post?

Well, once I knew others were tracking my behavior, it changed.

I am now much more unlikely– and by ‘much’ I mean at least a 100% reduction in the number of emails I respond to– to check out links, or reply to messages, or read the content of any email that’s being tracked. (This is not true of email lists that I’ve signed up for, or help-desks etc).

By tracking your email in my inbox, without my consent, you are, in effect, saying that you have the right to access information about my behavior inside my inbox.

Now, I’m sure, many people who use this tactic probably don’t actually think this (most of the time). But to me, that’s precisely what they’re saying.

Maybe I’m old school but I’m attached to the idea that, if you send me an email, I am entitled to the right of privacy to consider reading it, or not, without being tracked.

Perhaps this is just email going social? Facebook and Whatsapp (often) track when social contacts read your messages? Why shouldn’t email?

On a few occasions, I’ve responded to the sender (because they’re friends) and asked them about it.

Most reminded me that it’s fairly easy to block this sort of thing. But why should the onus be on me?

I just wonder if there are more downstream effects that don’t get ‘tracked’?

Particularly in these, more casual emails that I’m seeing them being used in– where the relationship is clearly peer to peer and not customer to buyer– doesn’t tracking behavior in personal correspondence undermine that relationship?

Maybe I’m overthinking it and it doesn’t matter all that much. But I’m writing to say that perhaps there’s a hidden cost to these actions that hasn’t been accounted for yet.

There’s a broader point too. I think that, sometimes, technology makes it easy for us to ignore the basic decencies we’ve agreed upon elsewhere.

Do you really assume that you’ve earned permission to see what happens in my inbox, just because you sent me an email?

Well, maybe so.

What do you think?

1) Does it make strategic sense to track casual outreach emails to your peers and colleagues? If yes, would you continue to do so if you knew over 50% of recipients had installed software that informed them about what you were doing?

2) Do you think it’s ethical and/or cool?

I wrote this on an airplane, so therefore didn’t run it by my tech savvy friends. Perhaps I’m simply mistaken about how all this works. If so, I’d love your insights. Certainly this is an interesting space for those creating the software tools involved.