Privacy Risk Assessment On Email Tracking

Authors:
Haitao Xu Northwestern University, USA
Shuai Hao University of Delaware & College of William and Mary, USA
Alparslan Sari University of Delaware, USA
Haining Wang University of Delaware, USA

Abstract:

Today's online marketing industry has widely employed email tracking techniques, such as embedding a tiny tracking pixel, to track email opens of potential customers and measure marketing effectiveness. However, email tracking could allow miscreants to collect metadata information associated with email reading without user awareness and then leverage the information for stealthy surveillance, which has raised serious privacy concerns. In this paper, we present an in-depth and comprehensive study on the privacy implications of email tracking. First, we develop an email tracking system and perform real-world tracking on hundreds of solicited crowdsourcing participants. We estimate the amount of privacy-sensitive information available from email reading, assess privacy risks of information leakage, and demonstrate how easy it is to launch a long-term targeted surveillance attack in real scenarios by simply sending an email with tracking capability. Second, we investigate the prevalence of email tracking through a large-scale measurement, which includes more than 44,000 email samples obtained over a period of seven years. Third, we conduct a user study to understand users' perception of privacy infringement caused by email tracking. Finally, we evaluate existing countermeasures against email tracking and propose guidelines for developing more comprehensive and fine-grained prevention solutions.

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