Nothing makes you more paranoid about privacy than working in a marketing department. Trust me on this. For example, did you know that marketers track every time you open an email newsletter—and where you were when you did it?
Apple caused a small panic among marketers in September 2021 by effectively making this tracking impossible in the default Mail app on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I, personally, switched to Apple Mail as soon as the feature was announced. You might feel the same way, but marketers feel as though they’ve lost a useful tool.
“If I start a conversation with somebody and they’re not responding to me, I’m going to stop talking to them at some point,” says Simon Poulton, vice president of digital intelligence at marketing agency Wpromote. “But if someone is nodding along, I’m going to keep talking.”
Tracking email opens, to Poulton, is a way for marketers to see who is, and isn’t, listening—and adjust their strategy accordingly.
Privacy advocates feel differently. Bill Budington, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says tracking is bad for privacy, and he’s pleased that “Apple Mail now provides tools to take your privacy back.”
Let’s talk more about what, exactly, this feature does—and what it means for you.
How Email Tracking Works (and How Apple Blocks It)
If you’re really freaking old—36, say—you might recall some ’90s email clients couldn’t open certain emails with formatting. You’d instead be prompted to open the email in your web browser. There’s a reason for this.
Email dates back to the ’70s, when computers couldn’t display much in the way of graphics. Because of this, email protocols are more or less designed for simple text messages with attachments—which works until you want to add things like colors and images. By the ’90s, a workaround showed up: adding HTML code to an email message that points to images hosted on servers.
I bring this history up only because it’s what makes modern email tracking possible. Most email newsletters you get include an invisible “image,” typically a single white pixel, with a unique file name. The server keeps track of every time this “image” is opened and by which IP address. This quirk of internet history means that marketers can track exactly when you open an email and your IP address, which can be used to roughly work out your location.
So, how does Apple Mail stop this? By caching. Apple Mail downloads all images for all emails before you open them. Practically speaking, that means every message downloaded to Apple Mail is marked “read,” regardless of whether you open it. Apples also routes the download through two different proxies, meaning your precise location also can’t be tracked.
Apple’s Been Adding Features Like This for a While
So did this catch marketers off guard? Kind of.
“The Apple Mail thing specifically kind of came out of left field,” Poulton tells me, “but the whole idea of the de-identification of users is something we’ve been planning on for a while. This is a multipronged attack from Apple.”