I subscribe to a lot of newsletters. I’ve read most of them, too. But their authors wouldn’t know because I disabled trackers that detect and notify senders when subscribers open their emails. It’s nothing personal; I just don’t want anyone to know what I read, when, how many times I read it, what device I read it on, and even where I was when I read it. And you?
Oh, didn’t you know it was possible for email senders to know all of this about you just because you clicked open? It really is, and it happens often, especially in newsletters and marketing emails. But trackers are not limited to them. Anyone can slip a tracker into your email; the services that do this are numerous and free. If you’re the type of person who disables read receipts on text messages and DMs, this probably isn’t good news to read.
While it’s scary to think that your email reading habits are being tracked, that’s not the only reason you should consider taking a few extra steps to protect your email. Your email address has become one of your best and most persistent identifiers, and data brokers and marketers will match what you do with it in one place with what you used it for in others. This helps them build an ever more comprehensive profile of your online (and offline) life. You might be OK with receiving emails from the store you gave your address to, or even from that store knowing if you’ve opened their emails. You might not be so good with a bunch of other companies you have no relationship with knowing that too. But that is exactly what is happening.
There is also the safety factor. Emails are constantly leaked during data breaches, and a determined hacker can do a lot with your email address, especially since email addresses often serve as a login. If a business doesn’t have your real email address, that’s one less thing you have to worry about if (or, really, when) that business gets hacked.
The good news is that there are ways to better protect your email privacy. A new one has just dropped: DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search engine provider, has just launched its email protection service after a 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 private and why you should consider using them. They are not the only companies to offer these services, but they each have a reputation for protecting the privacy of their users. In some cases, it’s 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 valuable, so companies will do whatever they can to get them. Maybe they’ll ask you to give them your email address if you want to order anything, or they’ll dangle you a nice, juicy discount in exchange.
One solution is to use a service that gives you an alias email address, which redirects messages to the inbox of your choice. This way, you can receive all emails (and coupons) in your real inbox without the senders knowing what your real address is.
Perhaps the best-known example is Apple’s “Hide My Email” feature. I use it, so I can tell you that it works as promised. I get unlimited aliases and use a different one everywhere. But, as seems to be the case with everything Apple, it works much better within the Apple ecosystem than outside of it. If you’re signed in to your iCloud account, using an Apple device, through Apple’s Safari browser, or signed in with Apple, then Hide My Email will appear as an option in the email prompts. mail. Creating and entering your fake email address is about as easy as entering the real one.
But if you are using a non-Apple product or service, the process becomes much longer and boring. Another downside is that it costs money. You must have an iCloud+ account, which starts at 99 cents per month and includes other things, like expanded cloud storage. So while Hide My Email is a good feature for some, it’s probably not the best option for everyone.
DuckDuckGo’s email protection, on the other hand, is free. And it’s available on 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 being Safari, though DuckDuckGo says that it’s in progress). After that, it will automatically appear 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 is also Firefox Relay, which has a free option and a paid option. The free tier only gives you 5 aliases, while the paid tier has unlimited addresses. That’s 99 cents per month, though Firefox says that price will only be available for a limited time. Also, the browser extension you’ll need to easily use Relay in messaging prompts isn’t available on all browsers. Finally, you must have or create a Firefox account to use it. It’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’s supposed to help you avoid leaking your data when creating accounts.
Finally, Proton — which is best known for its encrypted email service — now offers the ability to create alias email addresses with paid Proton Mail plans, which start at $3.99 per month. The cheapest option only gives you 10 aliases, so if you plan on using a different email for everything, that won’t be enough.
If you don’t want to worry about going through an alias service, you can always create your own alternate account on whatever email provider you’re using and put it in for all the stuff you don’t want to give your real email address. email for. This will reduce the amount of spam you receive in your real inbox, but if you use that email address enough times in enough places it will become as much of an identifier of you as your real email address. .
Block those trackers
Whether you give your real email address or go by an alias, you may not want email senders to know if and when you read their messages. They can learn a lot about you from this alone. This tracking is done through tiny little images – one pixel, roughly – embedded in the email. When you open the email, it calls the server the image is hosted on, which tells the tracking service that you opened the email, how many times you opened it, when you opened it. opened it, some info about the device you used to open it, and maybe even your IP address (many email providers have cut this out; Gmail, for example, routes image requests through its servers , which hides your IP address).
Some of the same companies that offer email aliases also offer tracker blocking services. Apple rolled out its tracker blocking feature, Mail Privacy Protection, last year with iOS15. The good news is that Mail Privacy Protection is free and easy to turn on – either you got a prompt the first time you opened Mail asking if you wanted to turn it on, or you just have to find it in your settings. The bad news is that it only works in Apple’s Mail app.
Proton’s messaging service enables tracker protection by default and is available with its free and paid tiers. It will tell you which trackers it has blocked and who they are from, giving you a chance to somehow spy on the companies spying on you. But tracker protection is only available on the Proton website. Proton says it’s coming to the mobile app soon.
DuckDuckGo’s email protection service is not tied to any company or operating system. It detects and filters trackers before they reach your (real) inbox. It also removes trackers from email links and lets you know if an email contains trackers and who they came from. Just to give you an idea of just how ubiquitous these trackers are: DuckDuckGo reports that around 85% of emails that passed through its new service during the Email Protection beta phase contained trackers.
The free and premium tiers of Firefox Relay also remove trackers. Note that the DuckDuckGo and Firefox options only remove trackers from emails that pass through them; i.e. emails from email aliases that you have created with their services. They do not remove trackers from emails that go directly to your real email address.
Finally, you can always go the DIY route by going to your email settings and making sure you’ve opted out of automatically downloading images. In Gmail, for example, you can do this by going to Settings > General > Pictures > Ask before displaying external images. The downside to this method is that your emails can look like a sea of broken image icons, since you’re not just blocking trackers, you’re blocking all externally hosted images, even if they’re perfectly harmless.
A final note: While these services and techniques will surely protect your privacy to some degree, nothing is foolproof. If there is any identifying information attached to your alias email address – perhaps you create an account using it and then order something to be delivered to your real physical address using your real name – it won’t be difficult for a data broker to match it back to you. While tracker blockers are effective, it’s always possible for marketers and the tracking services they use to find another way to track you through your emails. And then we’ll start the whole process again to figure out how to block those trackers again.