Trackbuster busts open the little-known world of email tracking
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Photo credit: Shutterstock Gajus

This app tells you who is tracking your emails and neutralizes their plan. Your Inbox will never look the same again

I don’t know Florian Seroussi, the CEO of the just-launched privacy app Trackbuster.

We exchanged a few emails, and by way of experiment, he is telling me what he has learned about me as soon as I opened his email.

“You’re in Tel Aviv, Israel, you’re on a desktop, using Windows 8.1 and a Chrome browser. You opened my email at 8:30 PM.”

All that is correct, although when he tries to guess my location based on my IP address, he is off by a few kilometers.

Still, this is scary stuff. A perfect stranger, just by sending me an email, was able to learn several pieces of information about me. If he were a burglar, he might discover that I’m out of town. If he were a marketer, he might discover that I opened the email a few times and forwarded it and am therefore ripe to buy his product  If he were a friend, he might find out that I am in a neighboring town when I said I was feeling too ill to attend his party.

Welcome to the world of email tracking, where a sender embeds a bit of hidden code or a pixel into an email and is then able to receive a notification of when you opened their email, what kind of device you’re using and where you’re located, all in real time, all without your knowledge or consent.

“There is no indication an email is tracked, “ Seroussi told Geektime. “It’s an invasion of privacy.”

Somebody’s watching you

If you think this is a small or marginal  phenomenon, Seroussi has news for you.

“Fifty-five percent of emails are tracked,” he said. “If you think it doesn’t affect you, you’re wrong.”

His just-launched service, TrackBuster, will go through your last 100 emails and tell you which ones have been tracked. It will also untrack all future emails by removing the tracking script before they appear in your Inbox.

I tried TrackBuster and learned that 64 of the last 100 emails in my Inbox had been tracked, according to the service. Most of the culprits were large companies like LinkedIn, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter. But I did find a few individuals who were tracking me.

I let them know I had caught them. One apologized profusely. “I just installed an app that integrates with my Gmail,” he wrote. “I’ll see if I can remove the tracking feature or just remove the app altogether.”

Another person denied it. “I’m not tracking you,” he wrote, “I wouldn’t even know how to do that.”

Why is tracking invasive?

According to Seroussi, unlike Google or Facebook, which make no secret that they are watching your every move, email tracking is not “opt-in.”

“Our philosophy is do whatever you want, but first you need to be transparent.”

For instance, Google and Facebook tell you that they’re keeping your data. But even if email trackers told the people they’re tracking, which they don’t, it still wouldn’t be a legitimate practice, Seroussi asserts.

“The problem with telling people they’re tracked is they have to open the email before you can tell them.”

According to Seroussi, the level of invasiveness can get very intense.

“Email tracking used to be used for security reasons by institutions and governments. It them became freely available to marketers, and now it is going from marketers to you and I –to people who just want to stalk other people, to know more about their friends, employees, employers, partners. This is a really bad habit.”

According to Seroussi, there are about 700 free email tracking tools available to consumers, tools like Yesware and Sidekick, as well as powerful and expensive CRM tools used by marketers that can give precise location information or even details of someone’s recent Internet browsing history.

“Companies like Salesforce have access to information that is incredibly rich,” he says.

Not so fast!

But before you panic, Geektime contacted several experts on email tracking to ask what these tracking apps can and can’t do.

Most frighteningly, can they pinpoint your precise location?

According to Uri Brison, CEO of LogDog, a startup that protects consumers from hackers on gmail and Facebook, the answer is no.

“When users open emails that have a tracking script embedded in them,” he told Geektime, “the script contacts a server, thereby indicating the email was opened. The message sent to the server will contain the source IP address for the user who opened the email. The source IP can be used to identify the ISP that was used  (except if the user is working behind a VPN or anonymizer). The ISP is a fairly good indicator of the general geographic location of the end user, but it is not very specific.”

Sanjeev Arora, CEO of Tabillo, a customer engagement intelligence & CRM software company, told Geektime that email trackers are powerful, but not that powerful.

Photo credit: Email tracking data, courtesy of Sanjeev Arora

Photo credit: Email tracking data, courtesy of Sanjeev Arora

“When the recipient opens the email, the image downloads and tracking URL send back information on the device (Mac/Windows laptop, iPhone/Android), operating system (Win8, mac OS X, iOS8, Android Jellybean etc.), browser (Chrome, Safari), public IP address (dynamic home IP given by ISP, or dynamic/static office public IP), location linked to the IP address (usually city or corporate head office location, depending on where it was opened).”

In other words, email trackers can give a general idea of your location, but not a precise address (unless you opened it at work). So if you played hooky from work and your boss sends you an email, your boss probably won’t be able to tell you’re not home in bed as long as you stay in the same city. If a wayward husband tells his wife he is “working late,” but is actually spending time with a mistress, the wife won’t be able to tell unless the mistress lives in a different city.

“CRMs are not able to get precise location information like the location of your cell tower, as that information is deep in the device and is protected by your cell phone company.” explains Arora.

“This information is available at the operating system level or if permissions are given by the user in certain apps like FourSquare. Even Twitter and Facebook ask for location when users are posting from their devices, but most commonly users turn that option off. Unless there is a native email app installed on the device, which specifically ask for permissions around location and access to other data, email opening simply can’t detect very precise data.”

Too much information?

Still, even if email tracking can’t pinpoint your precise location most of the time, the information it does provide could prove disconcerting in the wrong hands. Seroussi says many people mistakenly think that as long as they have “nothing to hide,” invasions of their privacy are acceptable. But it is not just government we need privacy from, it is anyone who might have a desire to take advantage of us.

“Saying I don’t care about privacy because I have nothing to hide is like saying I don’t care about freedom of speech because i have nothing to say,” says Seroussi.

How it works

Once you install TrackBuster you don’t need to change your habits. It will automatically work on your mobile or desktop. It removes the tracking script, as opposed to merely hiding it, before the email hits your Inbox. This allows you to freely open your email and send it to someone else.

“We tell you who has been tracking you. We’re like an anti-virus. We take off part of the code that is not supposed to be there.”

The advantages of the service, says Seroussi, is that you know who has tracked you, and you will have a much more private Inbox. Seroussi says the service will also discourage spam and unsolicited emails.

Seroussi says he is not looking to monetize the app at first.

“We’re looking to get massive adoption. In the coming weeks we will launch a premium version, a slightly more sophisticated solution for a fee.”

No ads, no surveillance

Unlike other free apps, however, TrackBuster will not monetize data about users.

“We have a very strong privacy policy. There will be no ads and no storage of any information whatsoever. We will never resell data because we don’t have it.”

The only data the company might collect, he says, is global, along the lines of “30 percent of emails of our users have been tracked.”

Seroussi says the idea for the company germinated when he first learned about email tracking a year ago. “I thought, people won’t use this. I thought it would disappear. But I’m a developer, I’ve been analyzing the code of my emails. The service has grown dramatically.”

“Tracking,”  he says “is the best-kept secret in the marketing business, a lot of people know about it and no one talks about it.  We intend to alert people about tracking. We will be the worst enemy of all the tracking companies.”

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Simona Weinglass

About Simona Weinglass

I’m an old-school journalist who recently decided to pivot into high-tech. I work in high-tech marketing as well as print and broadcast media covering politics, business culture and everything in between.

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  • MistMaster

    More and more and more are coming to destroy the cyber world thru what they call hacking. My god. What do they get in return if they hack people’s accounts or people’s privacy? Will it make them happy? That’s why, I use a VPN and I don’t trust the society nowadays. I am using IronSocket as my vpn provider and it works cool. been with them for a long time now and honestly, i really like them. never experienced such bad times with them. it hides my identity.

  • BilalAsif1900

    Online Threats are going to increase day by day, this is the reason people tends towards their online security and start using online security tool like VPN. I also using this tool from past six months from VpnRanks for my online security.