With privacy and tracking making even more headlines than usual over the last few weeks, DuckDuckGo is launching a new email privacy service that strips out trackers. But can it change the privacy landscape?
As the company points out, email trackers can currently be found in more than 70 per cent of mailing lists. They tell advertisers when an email is opened, where it's read and on what device, and can be combined with other information to help build up detailed profiles of users.
However, DuckDuckGo's new Email Protection, now in beta and with a waitlist, gives users an @duck.com email address that immediately forwards messages to their usual inbox after checking for and removing any trackers. Neither emails nor headers are retained by DuckDuckGo itself.
And there's also the option to create Private Duck Addresses - unique, disposable forwarding addresses that can be used to sign up for sites that might share the user's email address, or where there's a risk of ongoing spam.
The service is similar in principle to Apple’s Hide My Email, included in iOS 15, but works with iOS, Android, and all major web browsers.
"Since it’s common for sites to upload your email address to Google and Facebook for ad targeting, or for your email to be leaked in a data breach, this extra level of identity protection is now unfortunately necessary," the company explains.
"You can think of it as similar to not reusing the same password everywhere. We’ve also made Private Duck Addresses easy to deactivate, so there’s no stress if you start receiving too much spam."
Roger Grimes, data driven defense evangelist at security firm KnowBe4 points out that most email programs offer some protection from tracking already.
In practice, web trackers are generally blocked by default, in that most email programs don't allow linking back out from an email unless the recipient specifically gives permission for, say, images to be downloaded and displayed.
"But by removing them from the email, the user does not have to worry about the tracking at all, even if they allow images to download. So, it is a good thing," says Grimes.
"With that said, our privacy is so thoroughly compromised in every possible way that this is just one of a hundred angles that legitimate marketers and others are using to track you."
How will marketers react?
And, says Adam Robinson, founder and CEO of email targeting firm GetEmails, marketers will continue to find ways to track users.
DuckDuckGo's Email Protection doesn't leave marketers completely in the dark, for example: as with Apple's Hide My Email, they're still able to see certain information, such as which links have been clicked.
"The double-edged sword of clamping down on privacy is that ultimately, you starve the internet of an important part of its value exchange mechanism. Marketers are always going to be playing the cat-and-mouse game of trying to find ways to track people in their given environments," says Robinson.
"Advertising works better and is more economic when it's targeted. The best way to target online, for now, is to track people."