#47 – The Tracking Pixel Knows All

#47 – The Tracking Pixel Knows All

Did you know that companies can use “tracking pixels” to find out how long it takes you to open an email? Thanks to Superhuman, businesses can add “superpowers” (aka tracking pixels) to their email clients. Superhuman enables businesses to capture unprecedented insights into email open and response rates — and raises many data privacy concerns and questions.

The Grepcast team recently explored Superhuman and its use of tracking pixels, along with an FTC fine levied against Facebook, strikes at Amazon fulfillment centers, and other technology topics. Read our transcript below to find out what the Grepcast team had to say about these topics and more.

GREPCAST #47 – The Tracking Pixel Knows All

Adam Fisk: Today, we’ll be revisiting some fan favorite companies. And you know what? It makes sense to start with Facebook, a recipient of a record fine that didn’t do anything.

Kelly Ford: It raised their stock price. So, it did do that.

Mike Oh: When I first saw this article (about Facebook), I was like $5 billion, and GDPR has teeth. And then I read the article and realized that there needs to be at least another three zeros before it makes any difference.

KF: It’s really just a slap on the wrist, kind of like swatting at flies for Facebook. Their annual revenue is $56 billion, so this is basically just one month’s revenue.

AF: There was an accompanying article from The Verge written by Nilay Patel with a headline that sums this up perfectly: “Facebook’s $5 Billion FTC Fine Is an Embarrassing Joke.” This was retweeted by a couple of people with a quote from that article: “Here’s the best way to say it: That FTC fine increased Mark Zuckerberg’s worth.” This is disheartening, since this is one of the biggest scandals in the internet’s history. It is just another example of the “rich people tax,” where if you have enough money, park where you want to park, because the cost is negligible to you.

KF: I imagine they have fines baked into their financial statements. They plan for this sort of thing. So, when it comes in just like they thought it would at $5 billion, the investors say, “Hey, great, that’s no big deal.” If this doesn’t show that there’s a big problem with the system, then I don’t know what does.

MO: There are a few problems with the system. But aside from that, their net worth went up because people thought the fine was big enough but that it wasn’t going to hurt [Facebook]. And they’re past the Cambridge Analytica scandal. So, for me, it comes down to if Facebook is going to get regulated, and if these big companies are going to get any government regulation. And that’s where things start to get interesting. But it does seem like they’re getting away with it. They’re doing the very least minimum amount possible without getting regulated. There’s been talk of regulation, but no one wants to do it.

KF: But there has been talk about regulation outside the U.S.

MO: In the UK, there was quite a lot of talk around Instagram, which is a Facebook company, and a girl who committed suicide and learned about all this self-harm stuff on Instagram. All of these Facebook executives went on BBC and said, “We’d be open to more regulation.” But they were basically saying all the talking points so that they seemed like they were good enough and responsible enough so that no one would take action. So, there’s nothing on the UK side in terms of regulation, but I don’t know about the rest of Europe.

KF: There was an article in The New York Times from July 13 titled “Facebook Dodged a Bullet from the FTC and Faces Many More.” They go into more of the global implications. They’re saying the fine is nothing, but it’s the global fights that could sting [Facebook]. What was interesting was that in Ireland, they have 11 investigations underway against Facebook for violations of European privacy law. So, I think if we see anything, it’s going to be outside the U.S., and possible outside the UK. It sounds like the global fights are where we’re going to see some real action and tangible results.

AF: There have been more and more calls to get off Facebook. You’re just pushing your vote by staying on that platform. I know this is a hard thing to do, and there have been articles talking about the difficulty in breaking up with these major corporations. It’s extremely difficult, and it’s not easy. So, I am waiting to see if anything happens in Ireland that shows that there is a path forward.

MO: It shouldn’t come down to this. [Facebook] is a useful platform, and people are on it, and in certain parts of the community, this is their lifeline to various like-minded people. It shouldn’t be a matter of whether you should just be on it or not. I think regulation is the direction this needs to go, because it doesn’t feel like self-regulation, especially when it comes to these big tech corps, isn’t making any difference whatsoever.

AF: My fear is that in four years, another scandal will break, and there will be a fine of 40 million Libra, which is Facebook’s own monetary form. So, it doesn’t mean anything, and we’re just kicking this can further and further down the hill.

KF: With the regulation, I think it’s still going to come. We haven’t seen it so much with the U.S. One thing they pointed out in this article was that Facebook was accused of using surveillance apps to monitor transactions to pick off their competitors via acquisition. So, even if you do find another app, who’s to say that the new communication service won’t get eaten by Facebook? They kept bringing up the term “monopoly,” and this is like the telephone service of old. It’s interesting to note that the monopoly conversation is where we might start to have more talk about regulation.

AF: Moving on to one of our other tech giants, Amazon Day is a made up holiday to make you buy more stuff. As part of that, there are actually two major strikes at fulfillment centers for Amazon; the first is in Germany, and the second is in Minnesota. There are two different articles focusing on this. The first is from CNN Business, and the second is from Engadget. Both articles focus on what these strikes mean. This has come up in the news. We’ve discussed it from crazy expectations related to work metrics to health and safety violations coming out of these fulfillment centers. Now, on Amazon’s biggest day, last year, they generated $3.9 billion on Prime Day alone. And this year, their projected to $5.8 billion this year.

MO: It’s fascinating that strikes are becoming a pretty regular tool, particularly against Amazon. You don’t hear as much about it with Google. But particularly since [Amazon] is dealing with physical goods, strikes can have an impact. Living in the UK, there’s this historical association with strikes and coal miners, and more recently, with airlines and things like that. I think strikes can be a useful tool to get people’s attention and say, “Hey, this stuff doesn’t come at no cost.” Even though Prime comes with free shipping, it’s a constant reminder that there is a cost, and that cost is other people, and it’s their livelihood, and it’s their health.

KF: I thought it was interesting that this was happening in Minnesota and how they recruited from the local immigrant community. It was interesting to learn more about the cultural reasons. A lot of the workers asked for prayer time and just basic human rights-level things. We talked about people having to pee into bottles so they won’t miss their quotas. And I think that’s the thing that struck me the most. I think people are looking for just “less pressure” and a less-punishing work environment and more job security. So, it’s not like they’re asking for a lot here. And when you’re looking at (Jeff) Bezos — whose reported net worth is over $100 million — they can afford some breaks. They can afford to not feel like they can’t survive.

AF: In these two articles, there is one daily quota for Amazon fulfillment workers that they must pack 230 items per hour. This is a pretty heavy clip. And there were previous lawsuits in Minnesota to get employees dedicated prayer time, and they were given that, but they were still expected to meet that quota of 230 items per hour — despite not having that full hour of time. So, it is all these things where it’s like, “Sure, we’ll give you what you ask for, but you’re still going to be docked or harmed because we’re doing the letter of the law, not the spirit of the request.”

KF: Right, and they even had to fight for air conditioning. That was one of the things that Amazon conceded at one point. If you’ve ever worked in a factory, that is punishing (to not have air conditioning). I can’t imagine what it must be to have that kind of pressure.

MO: You must end up getting PTSD working in an Amazon factory. You have this constant pressure, and you’re having nightmares about not hitting your quotas, and all this other stuff. And I think there’s something there as well. They are going into different communities — and they’re probably communities where people need jobs. But it ends up being communities on the side, and they’re the ones that don’t have the ability or mass to strike. They don’t have the social support structure to not be able to get paid for a few days while you’re on strike, or to not be able to risk your job. If you look at the choices being made by the individuals to strike, they must be pretty bad situations to put these things at risk. It does boggle my mind that Amazon has the opportunity to employ so many people for a great business. Fundamentally, I don’t have a problem with what Amazon is doing, except for how they are treating their workers. It seems like it is simple as a flick of the switch.

AF: There’s also the rise of automation in Amazon. These troublesome workers who want basic things such as air conditioning, or to take a day off, or to go to the bathroom are being replaced by robots. Because, you know what, robots don’t need to pee, and they don’t have families. Amazon has said that there will be training programs to replace those (employees) who are not robots. Even in emails talking about the strike in Minnesota, they say, “Workers are humans. We are not robots.” In this article, it also says, “It sums up well that they want to be treated in respected in a way that honors the hard work they do and the wealth they bring in for Amazon.” History has shown time and time again that work stoppage events work, because they actually make people stop and listen. For every single person that can say, “I only have to work eight hours today,” it’s because of work stoppages.

MO: It will hopefully raise awareness. I think longer-term, that’s the question. Coal isn’t really a thing in the UK, and it’s now renewable energy. The key is that the change has to happen with enough of a time scale that people can get re-trained, get new jobs, and all those things. I think what will happen with Amazon is that they’re just going to turn around people with robots that will do the same job. Unfortunately, automation is going to push things out. It’s really sad to see that cycle. Amazon could have done something well by treating its workforce well while automation is catching up. But Amazon can’t even do that.

AF: I am personally very interested in seeing if the strikes in Germany and Minnesota have any lasting change. Or, if people have heard the call to boycott Amazon. It’s hard, when [Amazon] is such an ingrained part of our lives. We talk about sacrificing security for convenience. And honestly, it’s very convenient to order something on Amazon.

MO: I think things are going in the opposite direction, and I think part of it is an environmental thing. We tried Amazon Pantry for groceries, and we actually decided to go plastic-free as much as possible. So, we went to this place Unboxed where you use your own containers. And that was a very pleasant experience. It was very worthwhile to go there, talk to people, and interface. I felt like, “Hey, I’m genuinely doing something that is a little bit better than what I was doing before, rather than just convenience.” It takes more time, but I think it’s totally worth it. Enough people have to want to do this to get these shops to stay. I think you need more things like that — more small community centers — where people can get stuff easily. But part of that is a mindset, and hopefully, some of these strikes will help change that mindset.

AF: Moving right along, we now focus on a brand new company and service named Superhuman that wants you to spy on the people you are sending emails to. This is an article from The Guardian by Alex Hern titled, “Superhuman: the startup offering a shortcut to empty inbox nirvana.” The pairing of that is coming from Vice and Motherboard written by Jason Koebler titled, “Email Tracking Is Creepy and Invasive and No One Should Do It.” So, to start off, Mike, can you give us a quick crash course on what a tracking pixel is?

MO: The tracking pixel has been around for a very long time. Essentially, even since emails were able to embed HTML, which is the same code as the code on websites, they’ve figured out that they can embed a remote pixel that brings up a graphic on a server that’s not an email. And by counting how many times the graphic was loaded and how many IP addresses requested that graphic, they could get some great information. Fundamentally, it started that way, and it was pretty innocent. But now, with big data and all the data that’s out there from Facebook and all the data from all the hacks and stuff, it’s very easy to associate these basic pieces of information. One or two pieces of information allow you to associate information with a person or a bunch of demographics like who they are, what they look like, and what their age is. So, these pixels are becoming more and more intelligent — not because the pixels are more advanced, but because of all the data behind them. HubSpot, Salesforce, and all these CRM tools that are out there for businesses to grow use tracking pixels to see how successful you are at getting your emails opened. But this is the first time I’m seeing it consumerized. I think it’s interesting to see an investment in an email product.

KF: This app — is it Superhuman? Because I changed the name to Superstalker — is $30 a month. I thought about who would want this, and it’s sort of like that velvet rope, that cache that certain people would want. I could see a lot of social influencers being really into this. Email goes 24 karat, and apparently, a lot of [the app] is based on keyboard shortcuts. And if you don’t use them, they yell at you. This is such a nightmare for vulnerable communities, especially women. It’s hard enough being a woman on the internet, and now, you’re giving these $30 a month invite-only users the ability to not only know if you’ve opened an email but also know exactly where you’re at. That’s creepy.

AF: It’s surprising no one that it also secured a $33 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz, an influential venture capitalist that backs other companies that respect data privacy like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and pretty much everybody else. And read receipts on emails are just the next thing from Superhuman. It was explained that it was “characteristically more powerful than its competition” and could distinguish more “recipients opening the same email, differentiate mobile and desktop openings, and even report the approximate state- or country-level location,” which is creepy and crazy. Why do you even need it? It’s bad for the consumer.

KF: If I see a read receipt, I’m going to take even longer to respond to you.

MO: That’s the thing: tracking pixels are invisible, and you’ve probably gotten them in your email in the last week because it’s part of the technology. But to your point, the fact that salespeople are the people who really, really like them because they can find out if their emails have been opened is probably an indication into why it shouldn’t be out there in the larger world. But it is the reality. And over time, there are services where you pay $30 per month for Superhuman and then pay for another service to block the tracking pixels. But particularly in business environments, there are companies that as part of spam and email filtering are blocking tracking pixels. And part of it is to basically just not give that information out to salespeople. Hopefully some of the big (email) providers will start picking up on this and start filtering and blocking them. I say that with a bit of sadness. As someone who is trying to build a business and uses a CRM, we like some of that data, but we’re not using it to track people down by what state they are in. It’s just that it’s good to know that if you’re sending an email to 1,000 people, that 1,000 people actually got it and opened it.

KF: I think Google is doing that, but they’re masking the location. So, you still get the notification that an email has been opened, but you’re just not getting all of the geolocations to the finite detail that Superstalker is.

AF: If I send out a marketing message, it’s awesome to know if it was delivered and if people opened it. If I send out an email to 50 people and 48 people didn’t open it, it probably means that I was doing something bad. But I don’t need to know that they took four weeks to open it. These are things where it’s an issue of implied consent. This is in business-to-business marketing levels that there is implied consent because you include an unsubscribe button where people can say they don’t want this and remove it from their systems. But if I’m using this to manage my personal life and am emailing various people, that consent isn’t there, and that’s where it gets to that creepy level. In the Motherboard article, the author says, “Not responding to those very emails does not make me a bad person.”

MO: The good thing is that we can use data against them. So, in the email headers in any email that’s coming from anyone, you can generally see what email client they’re using. So, hopefully someone will come up with an email filter that shows if an email is coming from Superhuman, then it automatically sends a reply back.

AF: From The Guardian article, they removed the feature quote. But they go on to describe how read receipts are turned off by default, and they no longer capture geolocation data or anything like that. They flopped real quick because everyone got real mad. But, they even go through to say, “In the prosumer email market, read receipts have been a must-have for many years.” So, they’re like, this is what the market is demanding. And they tried to do it better than everybody else without thinking about the human characteristics.

MO: People do this — and I’m sure I’ve done it many times — where it’s just tunnel vision. And people can be like, “What if we just make the best tracking pixel ever?” When you’re designing an email client and looking at it from another perspective, it makes sense, because they just don’t think about the other use cases.

AF: In summation, we’ve talked about it: work-life balance is super-important. I’m going to respond to the emails that I need to because I want to put concerted thought into this and put together the message that I want. So, don’t put a read receipt in your email message when it’s not necessary.

Have an idea for a Grepcast episode? We’d love to hear from you! Contact the Grepcast team via email at grepcast@tsp.me.

Links and Extra Reading

Facebook’s $5 billion FTC fine is an embarrassing joke

Facebook ‘to be fined $5bn over Cambridge Analytica scandal’

Amazon workers go on strike in Germany as Prime Day begins

The Amazon Prime Day strike could be a turning point for workers’ rights

Superhuman: the startup offering a shortcut to empty inbox nirvana

Email Tracking Is Creepy and Invasive and No One Should Do It