Is there no privacy left in email?

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Preston Gralla

Preston Gralla
Jun. 01, 2004 06:02 PM
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I've been beta testing a piece of email software that some people see as breaking the basic web of trust that holds the entire Internet together, and I hate to admit it, but using it gives me a bit of guilty pleasure.

The software, and associated service, is called DidTheyReadIt. Run the software, and then you can invisibly trace any piece of email you send, for the price of $50 a year. You'll be able to know whether someone opened your email, and even how long the recipient kept your email open. You can even find out where the recipient is physically located.

The software runs in XP or Windows 2000, and it appends a bit of text onto the back end of the recipient's email address. So if you're sending email to preston.gralla@gmail.com, for example, it invisibly changes the address to preston.gralla@gmail.com.didtheyreadit.com. The recipient never sees the address change, and never knows that the email is being tracked. Presumably, the email is routed through didtheyreadit.com's servers, which is how the service does its work.

You don't have to use the software to track mail. Sign up for the service for $50 a year, and you can manually insert the .didtheyreadit.com to the end of any email address, and the tracking works as well.

DidTheyReadIt is not alone in doing this kind of thing. If you use AOL to send mail to another AOL user, you can do something like this. MessageTag has a similar service as well. But neither track you mail as comprehensively as DidTheyReadIt. And you can always use the return receipt feature of Outlook, but that at least alerts the recipient that you want a receipt, and he always has the option of not returning it.

So what do I think? I'm appalled and fascinated at the same time. Appalled because it breaks the trust inherent in Internet communications. Fascinated because like everyone who's ever sent an important email, I want to know whether it's been read, and whether it's being taken seriously.

But although I'm fascinated, ultimately I think it's a bad thing. There should be at least one part of our lives that remains private. Although email is used for business, it's also used for personal communications, and when that intimate barrier is breached, we're all the poorer for it.

Preston Gralla is the author of Windows Vista in a Nutshell, the Windows Vista Pocket Reference, and is the editor of WindowsDevCenter.com. He is also the author of Internet Annoyances, PC Pest Control, Windows XP Power Hound, and Windows XP Hacks, Second Edition, and co-author of Windows XP Cookbook. He has written more than 30 other books.