How Email Open Tracking Quietly Took Over the Web

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As recently as the mid-2000s, email tracking was almost entirely unknown to the mainstream public. Then in 2006, an early tracking service called ReadNotify made waves when a lawsuit revealed that HP had used the product to trace the origins of a scandalous email that had leaked to the press. The intrusiveness (and simplicity) of the tactic came as something of a shock, even though newsletter services, salespeople, and marketers had long used email tracking to gather data. "We have been in touch with users that were tracked by their spouses, business partners, competitors,” says Florian Seroussi, the founder of OMC. “It's the wild, wild west out there.”

Seroussi says that Gmail was the ice breaker here—he points back to the days when sponsored links first started showing up in our inboxes, based on tracked data. At the time it seemed invasive, even unsettling. “Now," he says, "it’s common knowledge and everyone’s fine with it.” Gmail’s foray was the signal flare; when advertisers and salespeople realized they too could send targeted ads based on tracked data, with little lasting pushback, the practice grew more pervasive.

"If the big companies don’t want to do something about it, there should be a law defining certain kinds of tracking,” he says. And if nothing is done at all, Seroussi thinks it’s only a matter of time before email tracking is used for malign purposes, potentially in a very public way. “I always wonder when a big story is going to come out and say that people broke into a house because they used email trackers to know the victims were out of town,” he says. “It’s probably already happened.”


How Email Open Tracking Quietly Took Over the Web