Stop email tracking with Apple and DuckDuckGo

Stop email tracking with Apple and DuckDuckGo

I subscribed to many newsletters. I’ve read most of them myself. But their authors wouldn’t know that because I disabled trackers that detect and tell 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, or even where I was when I read it. And you?

Oh, you didn’t know that it’s possible for email senders to know all that about you just because you clicked open? That it is veryand there’s a lot going on — especially in newsletters and marketing emails. But trackers are not limited to them. Anyone can sneak a tracker into your email; services that do that are abundant and free. If you’re the type of person who turns off read receipts on SMS and DMs, this is probably not good news to read.

While it’s creepy to think about your email reading habits 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 yours the best and most persistent identifiers, and data brokers and marketers will match what you do with it in one place to what you’ve used it for in others. This helps them build a more comprehensive profile of your online (and offline) life. You may be fine with receiving emails from the store you gave your address to, or even the store knowing if you opened their email. Maybe you’re not doing so well with a bunch of other companies that you have nothing to do with, knowing that. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

There is also the safety factor. Emails leak due to data breach all the time, and there’s a lot a determined hacker can do with your email address, especially since email addresses often double as logins. If a company doesn’t have your real email address, that’s one less thing you have to worry about getting there if (or, indeed, when) that company gets hacked.

The good news is that there are ways to better protect your email privacy. A new one just dropped: DuckDuckGo, the privacy first browser, just opened it 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. These are not the only companies that offer these services, but each of them has a reputation for protecting the privacy of its users. In some cases, it’s their mission statement.

Hide 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. But email addresses are valuable, so companies will do anything they can to get them. They might ask you to give them your email address if you want to order something, or dangle a nice juicy discount in front of you in exchange.

One solution is to use a service that gives you an alias email address, which redirects messages to an inbox of your choice. That way you can get all emails (and coupons) to your real inbox without the senders knowing your real address.

Perhaps the most famous example of this is Apple’s “Hide my email” feature. I use this, so I can tell you it works as promised. I get unlimited aliases and use different ones everywhere. But, as seems to be the case with everything Apple, it works much better inside the Apple ecosystem than outside it. If you’re signed in to your iCloud account, using an Apple device, using Apple’s Safari browser, or using sign in with Apple, and then Hide My Email will appear as an option on email prompts. Creating and entering your fake email address is just as easy as entering your real one.

But if you’re using a non-Apple product or service, the process becomes significantly more time-consuming and tedious. Another disadvantage is that it costs money. You must have an iCloud+ account, which starts at 99 cents a month and includes other things like expanded cloud storage. So while Hide My Email is a nice feature for some, it’s probably not the best option for everyone.

DuckDuckGo’s email protection makes it easy to create fake email addresses.

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 from the DuckDuckGo site or your browser’s extension store (the exception is Safari, though DuckDuckGo says it’s a work 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 easy, and there are a few other features that I’ll get into later.

There is also Firefox Relay, which has a free and paid option. The free one only gives you 5 aliases, while the paid tier has an unlimited number of addresses. That’s 99 cents a 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 email queries is not available in all browsers. Finally, you must have or create a Firefox account to use it. That’s easy enough to do, but it’s also an extra step you might not want to take when you sign up for a service that’s supposed to help you avoid giving away information when setting up an account.

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, starting at $3.99 per month. The cheapest option only gives you 10 aliases, so if you plan to use a different email for everything, that won’t be enough.

If you don’t want to bother going through an alias service, you can always just create your own alternate account with whatever email provider you use and write that down for all the things you don’t want to give your real email address for. This will reduce the amount of spam you get in your actual inbox, but if you use that one email address enough times in enough places, it will become your identifier like your real email address.

Block those trackers

Whether you provide your real email address or go through an alias, you may not want email senders to know if and when you read their messages. They can learn a lot about you only from that. This tracking happens through small images – pixels, basically – embedded in emails. When you open an email, it makes a call to the server hosting the image, which tells the tracking service that you opened the email, how many times you opened it, when you opened it, some information about the device you used to open it, and maybe even your IP address (many email providers have stopped this; Gmail, for example, routes image requests through its servers, which masks your IP address).

Some of the same companies that offer email aliases also have tracker blocking services. Apple introduced its tracker blocking feature, Mail Privacy Protection, last year with iOS15. The good news is that Mail Privacy Protection is free and easy to enable—either you got a prompt when you first opened Mail asking if you wanted to turn it on, or it’s a matter of finding it in your settings. The bad news is that it only works in Apple’s Mail app.

Proton’s postal service enables tracker protection by default and is available with both free and paid tiers. It will tell you which trackers it has blocked and who they are from, giving you the opportunity to spy on the companies that are spying on you. But tracker protection is only available on Proton’s website. Proton says it’s coming to the mobile app soon.

DuckDuckGo’s email protection service is not tied to a single company or operating system. It detects and filters trackers before they reach your (real) inbox. It also removes trackers from email links and will let you know if an email contains trackers and who they are from. Just to give you an idea of ​​how widespread these trackers are: DuckDuckGo says that about 85 percent 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 both DuckDuckGo and Firefox options only remove trackers from emails that pass through them; that is, emails that come through email aliases that you have created with their services. They do not remove trackers from emails that go directly to your actual email address.

Finally, you can always go the DIY route by going into your email settings and making sure you choose not to download images automatically. In Gmail, for example, you can do this by going to Settings > General > Pictures > Ask before showing external images. The downside of this method is that your emails could end up looking like a sea of ​​broken image icons, because you’re not just blocking trackers, you’re blocking all external images, even if they’re perfectly harmless.

A final note: while these services and techniques will certainly protect your privacy to some extent, nothing is guaranteed. If your pseudonymous email address has any identifying information attached to it — perhaps you used it to set up an account and then order something to be delivered to your actual 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, there’s always a chance that marketers and the tracking services they use will come up with another way to track you via email. And then we’ll start the whole process of figuring out how to block those trackers all over again.

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