I use an email tracker to spy on people I work with. This is why

Qais Hussain
·5-min read
<p> I use an email tracker to spy on people I work with. This is why</p> (Getty Images)

I use an email tracker to spy on people I work with. This is why

(Getty Images)

A huge problem with the “new normal” is that many of us are now working from home and having to rely on endless digital communication to get anything done. For me, as a student and journalist, I am tied to my emails for lots of my work (despite my intense loathing for them). The one thing that makes it better? My email tracker. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

It was in the before times that I was first introduced to the concept of an email tracker. I was attending a pitching workshop with fellow journalists and it was clear I was suffering with increasing frustration and anxiety that when trying to land work, people were not reading my emails. I was fixated by whether people were opening anything I sent.

So someone mentioned an email tracker. Email tracking is a basic tool of surveillance for your inbox. It typically employs a tiny pixel image attached to your email that is invisible to recipients, but once they open the email, the image is loaded from a server and the server records that data for the tracking agency.

These trackers vary in precision. [Editor’s note: Such trackers are only able to measure when an email client opens an email - not when the person who uses it does - and they do not always do that reliably. As such, using an email tracker as a concrete measure to track the number of times a person has seen a message will not be 100% accurate]. I use Google’s free email tracker. The paid-for version is incredibly appealing but expensive, costing £10 a month. Email trackers can be used clandestinely, nobody needs to know unless you tell them.

Recent analysis by the BBC showed that two-thirds of emails sent to personal accounts include a tracking pixel. In 2017, Wired reported that nearly one fifth of all email communication is tracked. When a tracker was suggested to me it seemed like a simple solution to an annoying problem but little did I fathom that this handy tool would actually cause me enormous issues.

Getty Images/Vetta
Getty Images/Vetta

The first of which happened a few months ago when I followed up on an email to an editor asking if she was interested in my pitch: my tracker showed she had read my email 14 times. But the response was not pleasant. She asked me: “Do you not think it is incredibly invasive and encroaching for you to know how many times I read your emails?,” she asked. I didn’t reply, probably out of shame, embarrassment or simply that I didn’t know how to respond.

But I kept using it. Then a former teacher accused me of “intruding in her personal life” for using it. She said I broke her trust and invaded her personal space; she also believed that it could potentially raise safeguarding concerns. She said she was disappointed in me.

Although obviously bad, neither of these were enough to deter me from using the email tracker. I now don’t send an email without using it. Admittedly I have always been pedantic and diligent (I know if someone has taken a single chocolate out of my Celebration’s box) but Covid-19 and the long distance of working from home has exacerbated this. I spend hours feasting my eyes on whether people read my emails or not. And I am not alone in my addiction.

When you use an email tracker and comment on when people are replying to an email, you are invading people’s privacy

Katie Tobin, a 22-year-old student is equally committed to using the software on all her communication. Tobin told The Independent: “It’s so helpful, especially when you are freelance. But the most fun I’ve had out of using an email tracker, it was when I filed a complaint and it was opened 87 times in one day and I was able to quote this figure back to them.”

Senior therapist Sally Baker believes my over usage of email tracker is "counterproductive". Baker also says people who use an email tracker lack confidence, are insecure and fear failure. When I told Baker about the negative reaction I have had, she told me to listen to those people.

Baker says: "When you use an email tracker and comment on when people are replying to an email, you are invading people’s privacy; therefore, this can harm getting the response one wants." She added: "You don’t know when people are working or the situation they find themselves in, so it can be very daunting to tell people you when they opened an email".

Of course it is incredibly unnerving when people accuse me of being “invasive” or “breaking their trust” for using it, but that is not my intention. For me, it seems a smart way to do business.

According to the BBC report, email trackers are used by some of the biggest names including British Airways, TalkTalk, Vodafone, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, HSBC, Marks & Spencer, Asos and Unilever.

Olivia Crellin, founder of Press Pad says: “It’s all about making you more effective, less hassling, and happier/less neurotic as a freelancer working as one half of a very unbalanced power dynamic with an editor who has total commissioning and financial control over the interaction. I see it as a small step to make that relationship a little fairer and in doing so improve the situation for everyone.”

In reality I know that having an email tracker doesn’t mean people are more likely to reply to my emails and it doesn’t make me more likely to land a commission from an editor. But what it does do is assuage my panic and prevents me from spending hours wondering if that person saw my message.

Just knowing it arrived safely - and that it has been read - takes the edge off somewhat. And if someone’s too busy or too rude to reply, then that’s all I need to know.

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