Law in the Internet Society

Surveillance Culture

-- By TiffanyYoung - 25 Dec 2017

I recently stumbled upon a rather alarming article regarding email open tracking apps. These apps embed some tracking feature into sent emails, and when the recipient opens the letter and unknowingly downloads the tracking feature, the app notifies the sender. The features range from a single pixel, to links, to text fonts and colors. There are apps that aim to stop these trackers, but the trackers are innovative and constantly working around blockers. Though the idea of read notifications is not new – the feature has been available on messaging systems for over a decade now – it is nonetheless alarming that these notifications are slowly creeping into other forms of communication in a much more invasive way.

The name “email open tracking” is actually very misleading; these features reveal far more than whether a letter was opened or not. In reality, the app delivers information on where, what time, and on what type of device the email was opened. And the apps don’t just track the first time the email is read; they let the sender know every time the email is opened. Such apps are available to the public, which inevitably opens the door to further surveillance by entities that want to manipulate us. The idea is simple: make us do it to each other so that we are numb to it when they do it to us.

Shifting of Perspective

The popularity of read-receipt apps and feature reflects a fundamental change in values when it comes to communication. Back in the days of snail mail and phone calls, we had no way of knowing when our messages were received until we received a response. Nowadays, we are less concerned about the conversation that flows from a response and more focused on whether we are being acknowledged. The focus is fundamentally different: in the past, we reached out to others to learn about their lives in some way; today, we reach out to others but demand the attention to be on us. Ironically, these features keep the focus centered on us, yet build their success on our insecurities and doubts.

Read-receipt features give us just enough information to have us on the hook yet keep us terribly informed. So what if our message was read? The information gives us no insight into the recipient’s life, instead letting our imaginations fill in the blanks. I have opened messages that I was not able to respond to at the moment, and within the hour, the sender would inform me that they were offended I did not deign them worthy of a response. These features play on our greatest fears of rejection. We seem to have lost all faith in other people, always jumping to conclusions or fearing the worst when we fail to receive an immediate response. We instead value what the machines give us, even though it is only partial (and almost meaningless) information.


We have become creatures terrified of not being liked. That’s why Facebook’s “like” button is so powerful; it lets us believe people who hit that button like us. Unanswered read notifications are being treated like silenced phone calls, though the former situation is really even worse because messaging is usually accompanied by the assumption that the recipient can respond immediately. A lack of response, then, must indicate a conscious effort to ignore the sender.

Emails are a bit different from instant messaging. Like their physical counterparts of the past, emails are often read and saved for response later, which means they do run the risk of being forgotten. In the past, people would send follow-up emails if there is no response. Perhaps people are now so afraid of not being liked that they are too scared to even send a follow-up email until they know they’ve been forgotten – lest they come off as pestering.

Tracking Culture

Part of the problem is the culture surrounding modern-day use of call phones and other such tracking devices. Because messaging is a silent activity, people believe they can multitask unnoticed as they check their endless app updates during meetings, meetups, etc. With the expectation of both instant receipt and instant response, it is easy to see how a lack of response can be overanalyzed. Our demand for instant gratification is paving the way to instant data delivery, whether or not we approve of what is being sent and who is receiving the information.

We have created a culture of surveillance. We have normalized a culture of fear and paranoia. We are each acting as individual Big Brothers, watching each other. By creating and spreading an expectation of surveillance, we are blurring the line between “normal” and “typical”. A people with no faith in themselves will not have the power to fight against injustice, and we are quickly becoming individuals that depend on outside validation.

Once again, it's important to get the tech right. Email is not a trackable medium. The rules that define how email moves in the Net (RFC 2822, which explains what an email message looks like as data, and RFC 5231 which defines the "simple mail transfer protocol" rules by which computers on the Net send, receive and forward email in transit) don't provide for tracking. If you are using a browser to read your email (as so many people unwisely are), or if your dumbass Microsoft email tool "renders" HTML automatically, then when someone sends you an email message with web references in it, the thing you use to read your email fetches all those web references, and that's how tracking (also phishing, and a bunch of other bad behavior) happens.

If one uses sensible email reading programs, none of this happens. You aren't tracked, you aren't phished, and many other things that you don't want don't happen. But no one is taught how to use software wisely, just how to consume products containing software that you can't understand and don't learn how not to use.

Being right about the tech matters, because what you don't understand you can't fix.

That doesn't entirely deal with your other point, of course, that asynchronous communication is being replaced by forced synchrony, because people carry devices that want them to behave for the spy device, and the spy device is therefore very good at nuisance "notifications," which most people don't learn to govern, let alone refuse to permit. The result is that all modes of communication become forcibly synchronous: you allow others to interrupt your attention, and they do. The device works for a platform that likes this.

But if you change your hardware, and its component software, so that devices that want your attention are replaced with devices that work for you when you want them to, all communication becomes asynchronous; you respond at the right moment in the timezone called yourself. Your attention heals, your thought process improves. Therefore the people who deal with you deal with a better you, and they rapidly adjust to the fact that you aren't synchronously available to them, or indeed to anybody. That serves your needs best. Adopting technology that makes this switch happen is simple. But you can't think of doing it if you don't understand the technology and the choices.

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r2 - 01 Apr 2018 - 18:08:29 - EbenMoglen
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