Working in marketing makes you more concerned about privacy than anything else. Are you aware that marketers are tracking each time you open an email newsletter and find out where you were at the time?
Apple made it impossible to track this information in September 2021, causing a little panic among marketers. As a built-in feature of Apple Mail, users didn't need to do much to activate it. However, marketers feel like they have lost a valuable tool.
For them it's like losing feedback in conversation. As long as users respond, i.e., open EMails there is a conversation going on and it's worth sending additional EMails. But if there's no feedback, then the conversation ends. To that end, tracking EMail opens is a way for marketers see who is listening and adjust their strategies accordingly.
Privacy advocates think differently. Bill Budington, senior staff technonologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation says that tracking is harmful to privacy and he's happy that Apple Mail now offers tools to get your privacy back.
How Email Tracking works and How Apple blocks it
If you recall EMail clients from more than two decades ago, you'll remember that some couldn't open emails that were formatted in a certain way. Instead, you'd be asked to open the email using your web browser. You'll find this info also in many modern EMail newsletters.
There's a reason for that. EMail was first developed in the 1970s when computers were limited in their capabilities to display graphics. The EMail protocol was originally designed to send simple text messages and was extended over the years as it gained also the capabilites to handle files. This works fairly well, until you need to add colors or images in your EMails. This was not possible, but in the 1990s, there was a way around this limitation: just add HTML code to your email messages that downloads images stored on servers.
This is important because it makes modern email tracking possible. For tracking purposes, EMail newsletters include an invisible image, which is typically one white pixel with a unique name (for exmaple, a hash value of the EMail recipient). Since the image is hosted on a server, the server keeps track on every image that is opened, and the IP address from which it was opened. This peculiarity of internet history allows marketers to track when an email was opened and by whom. It can also be used to approximate your location.
So how does Apple Mail stop this from happening? It uses caching. This means, Apple Mail downloads all images from all emails before you open them. Basically, this sends the signal that every message downloaded to Apple Mail is marked "read" regardless of whether it is opened (by you). Apples routes the download through two different proxy servers, so your exact location can't also be tracked.
While Apple has been adding privacy features like for quite some time now, this specific feature caught marketers somewhat off guard. In fact, some marketers consider the Apple strategy as multipronged attack on their business. Additional Apple features such as iCloud’s Hide my Email and Intelligible Tracking Prevention in Safari, makes it more difficult for marketing departments to use your browsing history on their website to display targeted ads on social media.
Apple's goal is to stop any type of digital identity stitching between across environments. This is exactly what privacy advocates are pushing for: the ability for individuals and users to see if marketing firms can link their activity on one platform with their identities on other platforms. Marketing companies like to claim that consumers are worse off because they don't see relevant ads.
It may be the case that the internet has always been geared toward personalization. And that it's sometimes nice to see ads that predict my needs and desires so that I don't have to.
What makes the while discussion interesting is the absence of the users and what they think about relevant ads. As written by the Wired author, people might be less likely to purchase things that they don't use, because they see fewer relevant ads. Here's how you do it:
This means also, that marketing companies need to find alternatives for newsletter systems. Get in touch with us and learn how you can implement a privacy friendly newsletter system.
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