Apple Mail now blocks email tracking. Here’s what it means to you

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Nothing makes you more paranoid about privacy than working in the marketing department. Trust me on this. For example, do you know what marketers track every time you open an email newsletter and where you were when you did?

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Apple caused a bit of a panic among marketers in September 2021 by effectively making it impossible to track in the stock Mail app on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I personally switched to Apple Mail as soon as this feature was announced. You may feel the same way, but marketers feel like they’ve lost a useful tool.

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“If I start a conversation with someone and they don’t answer me, at some point I will stop talking to them,” says Simon Poulton, vice president of digital at a marketing agency. Promotion. “But if someone nods, I keep talking.”

Poulton believes email open tracking is a way for marketers to see who is listening and who isn’t and adjust their strategy accordingly.

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Privacy advocates think otherwise. Bill Budington, Senior Technologist Electronic Frontier Foundationsays tracking is bad for privacy, and he’s pleased that “Apple Mail now provides the tools to restore your privacy.”

Let’s talk more about what exactly this feature does and what it means to you.

How email tracking works (and how Apple blocks it)

If you’re really damn old – say 36 years old – you might remember that some email clients from the 90s couldn’t open certain formatted emails. Instead, you will be prompted to open the email in a web browser. There is a reason for this.

Email dates back to the 70s when computers couldn’t display many graphics. Because of this, email protocols are more or less designed for simple text messages with attachments, which work as long as you don’t want to add things like colors and images. By the 1990s, a workaround appeared: adding HTML code to an email message pointing to images hosted on servers.

I’m only bringing this story up because it makes modern email tracking possible. Most of the emails you receive contain an invisible “image”, usually consisting of a single white pixel, with a unique file name. The server keeps track of each time this “image” is opened and by what IP address. This internet history feature means marketers can track exactly when you open an email and your IP address, which can be used to roughly determine your location.

So how does Apple Mail stop this? caching. Apple Mail downloads all images for all emails before you open them. In practice, this means that every message uploaded to Apple Mail is marked as “read”, whether or not you open it. Apple also routes the download through two different proxy servers, which means your exact location cannot be tracked either.

Apple has been adding similar features for some time now.

Did it take marketers by surprise? Something like.

“Apple Mail in particular came out of the blue,” Poulton tells me, “but the whole idea of ​​de-identifying users is something we’ve been planning for a while. This is a complex attack by Apple.”

Poulton points to several other Apple features, including iCloud hides my email and Intelligent Tracking Prevention in Safari and iOS, as well as other elements of this attack. These features make it harder, for example, for marketing departments to use your buying behavior on their website to serve targeted ads on Facebook.

“Apple’s goal is to prevent any cross-linking of digital identities across environments,” says Poulton. This is exactly what privacy advocates have been aiming for – the ability for users and individuals to determine whether marketing firms can link their activities on the same platform with theirs. personalities on others. I should note that Poulton claims that consumers worse off without that tracking, which he says makes ads more relevant.

“The internet has always been about personalization,” he says. “If he can just predict my needs and desires before I get there, that’s better. I don’t want to go out and make decisions. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m looking for.”

Myself? I switched to Mac Mail solely because of this feature, and not just because I value my privacy. Less relevant ads mean I’m less likely to buy junk I don’t need, which means I have more money to save or donate to organizations that need it. It also makes the world feel a little less dystopian, which I personally like. But that might just be a matter of preference.

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