The NSA Isn’t the Only One Tracking You

Working in the information technology (IT) field for over 10 years, I find that nothing surprises me anymore. Your information is out there, and there are many ways to track it.  An attorney came to me recently and said a client’s soon-to-be ex-husband had left her a voicemail saying he knew she had received an email he had sent and, furthermore, he knew the time and date that she had read it. The attorney asked me, “Is this possible?”   Well, in today’s fast-paced technology world, anything ­is possible.

After doing some research, we found out the ex was using a third-party tracking tool called ReadNotify. ReadNotify is one of several services that provide invisible tracking. The technology embeds a transparent tracking image in the emails one sends. It then provides details to the sender about what the recipient did with the email – from when they opened it, to whether they forwarded it – all without the recipient’s knowledge.

ReadNotify is a paid service. There are similar services, like SpyPig and WhoReadMe, offered at no cost. Once you sign up, you create an email that is sent to the service’s server and then sent to your recipient. The emails appear to the recipient as if they are coming directly from you, but they are actually processed through ReadNotify, Spypig, WhoReadMe, etc. The service provides the sender a report that lets the sender know the date and time the recipient opened the email. In addition, the service can also report if the recipient forwarded the email and the approximate location where the email was opened. For example, if the client said she was home but was really at the vacation house in Hawaii checking her email, these services may report her location. The report also can go into more detail, such as what kind of device the email was read on – desktop computer, tablet, phone, iPad, etc.  It can even track attachments, such as PDFs, Word documents, and Excel files, and show how long the recipient had the documents open. In some cases, these services can even tell if the document was saved or printed.

So what can you do to protect yourself?  There are a few ways if someone is using one of these services in the emails they send you. Here are some tips that may help you out:

1. Always be careful what you open and remember when you opened it.  (I can’t stress this enough!)

2. In every email you receive, there is a “header” or information bank that provides additional information about the email. To the blind eye, it just looks like gibberish. Look closely to decode.  For example, ReadNotify tends to use the domain “mesvr” – a key word to look for. Ask your IT professional to show you where to look.

3. If using Outlook, take note of any warnings, such as “Click here to download pictures, Outlook prevented automatic downloads of some pictures in your message”.  This is especially important if you don’t see any pictures to be downloaded. This is the biggest hint that someone could be tracking your email.  If there aren’t any pictures attached, it may be the embedded and transparent tracking image triggering the warning. If you click to download the pictures, it reports back to ReadNotify or another such service on what you are doing with the email. Gmail and other email platforms also offer warnings about downloading pictures. What’s a good way to prevent someone from tracking you?  If you see this kind of warning, NEVER download the pictures!

4. Work with your IT department to see if it has taken any measures to block these kinds of services. If you have experienced any of the aforementioned issues with a known sender, contact the person. Let that sender know you will no longer accept emails from him or her with this tracking service attached.

Although you may be surprised, from an IT point of view, privacy is a thing of the past. But you can take steps to minimize the information you make available to unknown trackers. Be cautious in everything you do. You may not always be able to control who is looking at your information, but you can control what you put out there. Think first, then hit “Send.”