WCAX Investigates: Email Bugs

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Do you want to know exactly when a friend or colleague opens your email? How about where they are when they do? Free services now allow us to do a little spying through the email we send. But it's raising some questions about privacy.

A growing number of people are using this technology. One More Company OMC, a company that makes software to detect this kind of email bugging, released a report last year. It says marketers put bugs in virtually all of the email they send. But surprisingly, last year 16 percent of all conversational email-- the messages you send to friends, family and colleagues-- was also tracked. And that's up from 10 percent the year before.

So could someone you know be tracking you?

We do it every day: we send email; we get email.

"Usually email is a private conversation," said Jonathan Rajewski, a digital forensics expert at Champlain College in Burlington.

Usually. But experts say increasingly there's the possibility your email could be bugged, embedded with a tiny tracker.

"Little creepy!" said Julia Termine of Burlington.

"That's my privacy!" said Vonae Thibou of Burlington. "I don't want people tracking what I do."

Marketers have actually been using the technology for years to better target their pitches. You know, those emails offering discounts you get after ordering something online or signing up for a store rewards card.

"It tells marketers that consumers are interacting with their product," Rajewski explained.

Rajewski says the tracking technology can alert the sender every time you open the email, what device you're using and your location. And it's crossing over from a sales and marketing tool to something regular people are using to bug what they send, thanks to free web browser plug-ins you can use with your email.

"I've had several students send me messages that were bugged," Rajewski said.

Not a big deal, he says, if you don't mind someone looking to see when, how and where you are when you're looking at their message. But let's say you don't want someone-- like an ex or a creditor-- to know where you are.

"It could be a privacy concern," Rajewski said. "It's kind of done in a very clandestine way. They're not telling you they're tracking you."

Freaked out? We'll show you ways to try to detect trackers. Remember those students who sent Prof. Rajewski bugged emails?

Reporter Kristin Kelly: You knew you were being tracked?
Jonathan Rajewski: Oh, yeah.

He says the trackers go to work sending back an alert when you display images in an email, like those messages you get from retailers. The trackers people are embedding in their emails are just a tiny 1-pixel image you can't see. So he says you can view your emails without loading the images. And you can try to find that tiny tracker by finding its big line of code.

"You can see there's actually a tracking link which I redacted a little bit," Rajewski said, pointing at his computer screen.

You can see all of the code in an email by going to "show original," which is on the right side of your Gmail dashboard.

But he says with technology evolving all the time, you have to be aware that tracking will, too. And that means if you respond to an email with something polite but untrue like, "I'm sorry, I'm just seeing your email now," even though you've looked at that email three times in the last three weeks, the person at the other end could know you're fibbing.

"You kinda can't hide behind that curtain. They can see if you opened it or not. You kind of have to either respond promptly or avoid getting into that lie scheme," said Zeb Bolduc of Worcester.

Rajewski says you also need to be aware that if you choose to bug emails you send, the service you use could be capturing data about you. Check all privacy policies to be sure.