Just when I started agonizing about the privacy aspects of MessageTag, a company has come along with a service that makes the mail-receipt monitoring service look like chicken-feed.
MessageTag allows users to see whether and when their emails have been read by recipients. It does this by inserting what privacy advocates called a web-bug into the email — a unique link, basically, that checks back to the MessageTag servers and matches it with the original email. The sender will then be notified as to when the email was opened.
I have to confess I find it an excellent service, and I use it, along with a message at the bottom of each email informing the recipient I’m doing it and offering not to if it offends them. Few ask me to remove them, an indication they either don’t object or they don’t read all the way through my emails. But despite finding it a huge timesaver — knowing whether an email’s landed safely, and whether to expect a reply any time soon makes life a lot easier — I still worry it’s too intrusive. Is it fair to make the process one the recipient must not first approve? MessageTag, to their credit, have acknowledged these concerns and have built in some safeguards, including limiting the service to individual emails. But is it enough?
As I was juggling all this, word comes by of a new service that can tell you not only if and when your email has been opened, but approximately where the reader is located and how long they read the email for. If they open it again, or forward the message, you’ll also be informed (it’s not clear whether the original sender is informed as to who the email is forwarded to). What’s more, DidTheyReadIt is invisible, meaning, in their own words, “every e-mail that you send is invisibly tracked so that the recipients will never know you’re using didtheyreadit”.
Privacy aside, for the moment, you can imagine the social fallout from this. “Jean only read my email for two minutes, and she read it in Utah when she said she was in Seattle. The cheatin’, lyin’ skunk!” Or “Brian has read my email 14 times and he still hasn’t replied! Is he trying to break up with me?” Or “That love note I sent Sandra in personnel has been forwarded to 64 people! I’m the laughing stock of the office!” (OK, there are probably easier ways to find out if you’re the laughing stock of the office. But you get the idea.)
DidTheyReadIt works slightly differently to MessageTag. Once you’ve signed up and installed the software, you add an extra didtheyreadit.com to any email you send out that you want to track. So email@example.com becomes firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s not enough information on the website to say more than that. Indeed, there’s a lot that’s not on the website, and which I think we need to know before assessing DidTheyReadIt. Such as:
- How can the user alert recipients to the fact he’s using the service and what it entails?
- How will the email addresses harvested by Rampell be used?
- Why is the service invisible by default?
- How will Rampell prevent this service being used by spammers and other mass-mail marketers?
The service will be officially launched later this month. The basic version of DidTheyReadIt is free, but is limited to 5 messages. Subscriptions cost $10 a month, $40 a half-year or $50 for the whole year.
I’d be interested in hearing from folk (lwire at jeremywagstaff.com) about whether they think there’s a line here that could allow services like MessageTag to thrive without sacrificing privacy — such as allowing users to choose whether they acknowledge receiving an email, without requiring much effort on their part, perhaps– or whether DidTheyReadIt just throws into sharp relief that this sort of thing is unacceptable to most folk and should be stopped. I’ll also forward this to Rampell to see if they have any comments.