Jenny first started tracking her email in 2014 when one of her main correspondents, an ex-boyfriend, stopped responding to her.
She signed up for a service that let her put a tiny, invisible pixel in her emails that silently "phoned home" when they were opened, telling Jenny* when they were read, on what device, and from what location (based on an IP address). The ex, who we will call Steve, had remained a close friend, but his new girlfriend had forbidden contact. Jenny was in the habit of writing Steve monthly missives about her life that had come to feel like diary entries. Her email tracking revealed that Steve was opening her emails, sometimes multiple times. So she kept writing them.
When Steve later broke up with the restrictive girlfriend, the one-sided communication became mutual again. But don't worry, this isn't a story about love abetted by spy tech. Steve and Jenny are still just friends. Instead, it's a story about her tracking exposing his girlfriend's disturbing behavior.
One Tuesday in the summer of 2015, Jenny got a flurry of read receipts. Steve had just re-read all of the emails she had sent him the year before in rapid succession. This struck Jenny as strange, especially when she looked at the time. It was 10 a.m.; Steve was likely at work. So she sent him a text message, "Did you just open a bunch of old emails from me?" He said he hadn't and wanted to know why she thought he had. She told him about the tracking. He called her a creep (mostly kiddingly), but also revealed that he'd gotten back together with the restrictive girlfriend. Apparently, after he'd left for work that day, she had hopped on his home computer and snooped through his email.
"They had a huge fight," Jenny told me.
Jenny used an email tracking service called YesWare. It's one of several companies out there, including ReadNotify and Streak, that let you creep on the people to whom you send emails—and they have no idea it's happening.
YesWare, which has 700,000 email-tracking customers and was until this month available for free, explained how its tech works: "A small image pixel is attached to each email an individual elects to track," a spokesperson told me by email. "That pixel detects the subsequent activity of the recipient, and sends notifications to the original sender."
The pixel is an image that calls back to YesWare's server in order to load, forcing the reader's phone or computer to make a connection with the server, allowing YesWare, in most cases, to get information about the reader and report it back to their customer.
A woman named Elana started using email tracking personally when she developed complications during her pregnancy and needed the comfort of knowing doctors were reading her emails in a timely fashion. "If I were in high school, or it was before I was married, I'm sure i would have used it for dating or with a girl I was in a fight with," said Elana. For the most part, "my life is less dramatic now." The obvious users of email tracking would be teens, except they don't use email.
Jeromy Sonne of Denver uses email tracking professionally all the time, but just recently started doing it personally. "I used to live by the mantra, if my friends want to talk to me, they'll respond," Sonne told me, but he recently started wedding planning and found it overwhelming. "Planning the bachelor party and doing the wedding organization stuff would be impossible without knowing that information was conveyed."
Sometimes email tracking is just practical. If Sonne sees that a wedding vendor has opened an email, and they don't immediately respond, he moves on to a new vendor. With the bachelor party, he knows who actually read planning emails and who he needs to follow up with. "It cuts down on unnecessary communication," he said.
But Sonne says he wouldn't usually track emails with friends. "If I had an open tracker on [emails to friends], I'd see they read it and then feel self-conscious about their not responding," he said.
Sometimes, it's better to live in ignorance, and not know that your message has been read but ignored. Once you have this knowledge, it can be anxiety-producing. 'They saw it!? Why haven't they responded yet!? Do they hate me? Are they mad at me?' One email tracker told me that an email she sent someone got forwarded on and bounced back and forth between two people for months, causing her to create a disturbing narrative in her head about what they might be saying about her. There are certainly scenarios in which it's better not to know the fate of your email.
But there are also things which you would want to know. Chris Drake, the CEO of ReadNotify, which has been helping people track emails for 17 years, told me that his service is popular with people doing "scam detection," who are trying to find out whether "the person [they] are emailing with is lying." If they claim to be an eligible bachelor who lives in your state, but all their emails have IP addresses based in another country, it's a strong sign you're being scammed. Drake says his service is used by lawyers, politicians, and law enforcement, and proudly recalled when it was used by HP investigators in the "pretexting scandal," where the tech company spied on journalists in order to find out which employees were leaking information to the press.
The most famous use of ReadNotify though was when it was employed by David Johnson, a Californian obsessed with the superstar Jay-Z. A couple of years ago, Johnson used ReadNotify to track hundreds of emails he sent to Jay-Z. Via Buzzfeed:
“[Jay] has opened every single one of my emails, even re-opening them to re-read,” says Johnson. “He has clicked on links and had emails open for as long as 20 minutes.”
It's a way of getting a little peek into the fate of the emails you send out into the ether. Sometimes, when you send an email, you don't actually need a response, you just want to know if the other person read it. And that's not just if you're a borderline star-stalker. One email tracker reached out to an old friend that she hadn't seen in years, who'd "gone off the deep end for a while." The friend wasn't on social media and she had a too common name for anything to show up in a Google search. She didn't respond to the email, but the tracking showed the email was opened in New York City. The location information made it possible to Google her and see where she was employed. Such is the power of email metadata.
"I am really creepy," the email tracker told me, laughing at herself. "But this is a really good reason to use it. With all the horrible things happening in the world, it's good to know she's alive and ok."
While that anecdote is innocent enough, it's easy to see how a stalker could use the same feature in an incredibly harmful way. Luckily, there are services out there that will warn you when an email you've received is being tracked, such as the Chrome extension Ugly Mail. Some email providers block the pixel, and Gmail prevents the sending of IP address or device information by proxy-loading the images, so that a sender only knows the email was opened.
I have to admit, though, after talking to a handful of people who track their emails, I started feeling like a negligent journalist for not doing the same. This would be a way to know whether a media inquiry I sent was read and ignored or languishing in an email account no longer used by its recipient. When trying to solve the mystery of an anonymous person's identity, this would give me a crucial IP address clue. This would tell me whether an email I sent was being forwarded on to others in a company or agency, or getting stonewalled by PR.
But most journalists don't use email tracking. It's far more widely used by those on the other side of the communications universe: marketers and salespeople. YesWare said most of their customers are in marketing. That's why you sometimes get a call from a salesperson the minute after you open an email from them. Nearly every marketing email you get from a company includes trackers that report when you opened it and what you clicked on.
"Knowledge is power. If you know if a person opened an email or didn't, you're more empowered when following up," said Alex Taub, a start-up founder who uses email tracking for business development. "You're not in purgatory after you send an email. It improved my chance of closing deals 100 percent. It puts me in a much better spot to know what to do next."
Taub says the most useful feature is knowing whether they read an email on desktop or on mobile. If on a smartphone, he's more likely to follow up, "because you always look at stuff on mobile and plan to reply later on desktop."
But there's definitely a creepy factor to someone's digitally looking over your shoulder while you go through your inbox. The people who use email tracking defend it by saying that WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype all provide "read" notices—though in those cases, readers know the feature exists. Ironically, the same people who use email tracking often told me they hate that Facebook tells you when someone's read a message, and that they had turned off the iMessage feature (that's on by default) that tells someone once you've read their text.
"I don't want to be tied to a time frame of having to respond," said Taub about turning off the iMessage read receipts. "I don't want someone to feel insulted if I don't respond right away."
We live in a snoopy world. There's a huge mass of information about the people in our lives just waiting to be discovered online. You can Facebook snoop, Google search, and Instagram creep—all societally-accepted forms of information-gathering. But email tracking exists in a moral gray area, done in stealth with its targets mostly unaware that it's possible to do. Is it unethical to get information about someone's activity that they don't realize they're sharing?
"Everyone could use this. Everyone should be using this," said Jenny. "It's like I got a car and everyone else is riding horses. Should I ignore the fact that the technology exists?"
Perhaps not, but recipients should be aware that the technology exists too.
* Jenny's name has been changed, because she doesn't want people to know she's an email creeper.
Correction: A reference to the service Boomerang was removed from the piece because it notifies the recipient of an email before sending a read receipt.