Your email use is being tracked, and not just by marketers and spammers
You open an email, something most people do several times a day. There's a two-in-five chance that whoever sent you that email knows whether and when you opened the mail, among other information about your reaction to it. If the message is from a friend or acquaintance, the odds of the person who sent it tracking you drop to one in five.
Those are among the findings of a June 2017 study conducted by "email intelligence" service OMC, which sells anti-tracking tools. Wired's Brian Merchant writes in a December 11, 2017, article that email tracking has been going on for many years, primarily by newsletters, advertisers, and marketers, as well as by web giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and MailChimp.
What's new is the use of email tracking by individuals rather than by corporations. The result is that millions of people are being tracked via email sent to them who never consented to the surveillance and are almost always oblivious to being spied on by the sender. An executive for OMC is quoted by Merchant explaining the results of the tracked emails the company sent to U.S. senators and Presidential candidates during the 2016 campaign:
"We wanted to know, were they doing anything about tracking? Obviously, the answer was no. We typically got the location of their devices, the IP addresses; you could pinpoint almost exactly where they were, which hotels they were staying at."
Merchant got a first-hand look at the intrusiveness of email tracking from the sender's side when he used a tracking product for emails he sent to Apple PR reps and executives after being stonewalled on a story he was working on. Merchant knew when the messages were being opened, what type of device the recipient was using to open them, and when the messages were being forwarded.
Ultimately, Merchant removed the email tracking tool because he was creeped out knowing friends and family would open his emails, and then not respond for days. When they tried to claim they never received the message or it was sent to their spam filter, Merchant knew better. He concludes that email tracking "mostly serves to add yet another unnecessary layer of expectation onto our already notification-addled lives, another social metric to fret over, and another box to click on feverishly whenever it arrives."
Block trackers by disabling images in the messages you receive
The tracking is done by inserting one line of code in the body of the email: a 1-by-1-pixel image that is invisible to the naked eye. The tracking "beacons" are also embedded in links, custom fonts, and other elements, as Merchant explains. Opening the email triggers the beacon, which records and reports that the message has been opened, where it was opened, and the type of device it was opened on. The beacons are everywhere: billions of emails are sent to millions of people every day, and a great number of the messages include tracking beacons.
Merchant quotes one email marketer as saying, “I think it will be a matter of time before either everyone uses them or major email providers block them entirely.” Beacons are only one of the many ways we are tracked in email and elsewhere online. You can minimize having your email use tracked by blocking images in emails.
When you want to view the images embedded in a message or activate another feature that is now off by default, choose the option to do so in the warning that appears at the top of the body. Here's what the "show images" option looks like in Outlook.com, Outlook, and Gmail:
Some emails may not display correctly when images don't download automatically, but in nearly all cases you won't miss the message's pictures at all. A bonus is that emails will load faster, so you save some time as you thwart the trackers.
Just in case you need another reason (or two) to dump Facebook, we learned this week that at least one repressive government is using the social network as a weapon against its opponents. Bloomberg's Lauren Etter reports in a December 7, 2017, article that Rodrigo Duterte's winning campaign for the Presidency of the Philippines in 2017 was due in large part to his supporters' mastery of Facebook.
Since moving into the Malacañang Palace along with Duterte, those Facebook pros have targeted the despot's many critics in the country. Etter writes that Duterte's supporters are now "methodically taking down opponents, including a prominent senator and human-rights activist who became the target of vicious online attacks and was ultimately jailed on a drug charge."
At least one former Facebook executive now believes he helped to create a monster that is "ripping apart the social fabric of how society works." In a December 12, 2017, article on the Guardian, Julia Carrie Wong quotes Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook VP for user growth, as saying he now has "tremendous guilt" about the work he did at the company, which he left in 2011.
Palihapitiya told an audience at a Stanford Business School event in November that they should do some "soul searching" about their use of social media: “Your behaviors, you don’t realize it, but you are being programmed... It was unintentional, but now you gotta decide how much you’re going to give up, how much of your intellectual independence.”
Personally, I've posted only once to Facebook over the past six months -- that was a few days after the Tubbs Fire. I feel liberated. However, I still spend too much time on my Twitter feeds, which I'm sure is making me more dependent, intellectually speaking.
Can words help us defeat authoritarianism? AlterNet's Frances Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen believe so. In a December 7, 2017, post, they cut through the fog of language to state clearly that there is now only one rule controlling our economy: "do what brings the highest return to existing wealth." Thus what everyone likes to call a "free market" is in fact a "one-rule market." If you ever hear someone use the term "free market," immediately instruct them that what they intended to refer to is the "one-rule market."
Other terms in dire need of re-definition are "regulation," "capitalism," and last but not least, "democracy." That word needs to convey the concept that we all "have a say," that we are "included," and that we are all "accountable." Lappé and Eichen propose "democracy" be defined as "governance aligned with what humans require to thrive."
What we appear to have at present is governance aligned with what big business requires to thrive.
Lastly, a reminder from AlterNet's Eileen M. Russell in a December 11, 2017, post that as dangerous as Donald Trump is, the real threat to our democracy and our existence is the cabal of "co-conspirators" who put him in power and keep him there. It is no secret that Trump is "disturbed and unfit to hold the office of president." For any number of bad reasons, Trump is being "explained, supported and justified by enablers, and many of them."
Russell concludes that "[i]f we are not finding ways to participate in our democracy both to resist the destructive things he is doing and to build enough momentum to get him out of office, we are dangerous as well.... Whether we voted for Trump or not, we are responsible for the calamity of this presidency.... We are all potentially dangerous. But we are also all potentially corrective."
In the spirit of correctivity, I pledge to do what I can this week to inch us closer to a government aligned with a world full of thriving humans. Until the next Weekly, I wish you a thriving and prosperous seven days!