Apple Is Ending Email Tracking With a Single Popup

Anupam Chugh

The new Mail Privacy Protection feature ensures that email marketers can no longer track your activity
Screenshot by the author from his iPhone 6s running iOS 15 beta 1 — pasted on a simulator

Spoiler alert: If you’re reading this piece through the latest Apple Mail app update on macOS 12 or iOS 15 (currently in beta), I won’t be able to know it.

A lot of people were bummed when Apple didn’t announce new hardware during WWDC 2021 Keynote event. More so since Silicon chips got so much limelight and a positive reception last time.

However, privacy has always been at the heart of Apple and they ensured it stays the major selling point this year as well.

When the Keynote started, a good fifty minutes were given to showcase subtle software upgrades and enhancements in Apple’s stocks apps. It felt slowish for a while, and many of us might’ve snoozed off.

Yet the first mention of “privacy” was enough for everyone to sit up and take notice.

Following up on a tense year that was marred with criticism over the iOS 14 App Tracking Transparency feature, very few were expecting a major privacy announcement this time.

But Apple knows how to surprise us. And boy, they did that in style:

With just twelve words, Apple managed to freak the hell out of every email marketer and newsletter publisher:
Screengrab from KeynoteScreengrab from Keynote

Such was the magnanimity of the new announcements that by the end of the security section in the Keynote, I’m sure plenty of marketers would’ve immediately set up a hands-on-deck meeting with their advertising teams.

Apple confirmed that despite the hoopla surrounding digital advertising losses for small businesses, App Tracking Transparency isn’t going anywhere.

Instead, the iPhone maker doubled down on it by coming after the most classic and best form of marketing: Emails.

Apple’s Mail App Prevents Marketers From Tracking You Without Consent

Who knew emails were such an invasive form of tracking? Despite it being obvious in hindsight, I didn’t.

As it stands, most marketing emails today ship with tracking pixels. A pixel is an image unit and email senders would typically embed them as a tiny invisible rectangle so that it’s privy to the naked eyes.

Now any time you open an email, there’s a good chance that the invisible image gets loaded and pings the server. In doing so, the sender gets a hold of your information such as IP address, type of device, location along with monitoring your click activity behavior.

While a lot of email marketers use this responsibly to measure user engagement, analyze headlines that work, and improve their success rate for the future, still it’s easily misused.

A marketer can sell your information to third-party services. Data such as the kind of operating system you use, demography, and your interests are immensely valuable. It helps advertisers narrow down on you and build shadow profiles for targeted marketing.

No wonder we get so many email ads based on Google searches.

Users would also observe the uncharacteristic ratio of unanswered follow-ups emails they receive. This happens because the sender already knows you’ve read their emails.

Just the thought of marketers adapting their content based on user’s email behavior gives a dystopian futuristic nightmare. Gladly, Apple has put an end to this.

When your launch Apple’s Mail app on iOS 15, you’d get an opt-in Mail Privacy Protection popup — like the one in the header image of this story (yes, I clicked it on my iOS 15 powered iPhone 6s device and am elated it got the update).

The dialog asks whether you want to protect your mail activity. If you select “Protect Your Mail Activity” Apple would then block the image tracking pixels, mask your IP address and location from the sender.

Apple might’ve just ended email tracking with one popup

It’s a no-brainer that even a non-tech savvy user won’t click on the “Don’t protect Mail activity” button.

This not only marks the end of email read receipts but also makes it difficult for email marketers to track people. To put it straight, Apple has literally put the whole email marketing business in a dumpster.

Mail Privacy Protection Will Have a Bigger Impact than App Tracking Transparency

If you compare iOS 14’s App Tracking Transparency feature with Mail Privacy Protection in iOS 15, the latter doesn’t seem like a big deal.

More so, since Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) was already present in some form before (buried in settings) even if it wasn’t at the forefront.

However, there’s more than what meets the eye and if you dig a little deeper, you’d realize that Mail Privacy Protection is Apple’s most aggressive privacy move in years and leaps ahead of the opt-in ad tracking feature in terms of impact.

Unlike App Tracking Transparency (ATT) which relied on iOS app developers to implement the feature, Mail Privacy Privacy Protection is completely in Apple’s control. This means Apple doesn’t need to give third parties developers more time — as they did with ATT by delaying the feature for almost a year.

It’s good to know that the first iOS 15 beta already ships with Mail Privacy Protection in Apple’s pre-installed Mail app.

Also, despite ATT’s usefulness, it was only relevant on mobile apps. macOS apps were hardly impacted given there are so few of them. This is another place where Mail Privacy Protection takes the cake. The feature is rolling out on the latest macOS update too.

Now, one may say that Gmail, Spark, and Outlook are the most popular email client apps and provide a far better experience than Apple’s Mail app. Yet, if you look up Apple’s default market share, it’s pretty huge — more than 50 percent.

This isn’t surprising since Apple Mail is the default email app, both on your iPhone and Macbook. Most regular users can’t figure how to switch email clients and generally leave things at default settings(at least my grandmother does so).

Along with the New Privacy Relay Feature, Apple Is About to Make Advertisers Feel the Squeeze

Despite best efforts, advertisers always figure a way to track you. Facebook has repeatedly tried to gaslight iOS 14 users by depicting personalized ads as good for relevant ads and to keep things free. Google is working on FLoC, a replacement of cookies to group users.

So, one could argue that email marketers might eventually find a way. Like by adding website links in the mail body to redirect recipients to the browser? Gladly, Apple eliminates this web-based tracking approach as well through a new privacy relay feature.

Safari already has an Intelligent Tracking Protection (ITP) to block third-party analytic trackers. Now, with iOS 15, Apple introduces “Privacy Relay” and “Hide My Email” feature as a part of iCloud+, a paid plan.

Privacy Relay ensures nobody, not even Apple can track your browsing activity. In simple terms, it’s a two-factored VPN that masks your browsing IP address by passing it through multiple proxy servers. In doing so, no single entity holds enough records to identify who you are.

Essentially, Privacy Relay makes it impossible for anyone to track an individual’s footprints on the web — further adding to the woes of advertisers.

If you connect the dots between Mail Privacy Protection with Privacy Relay, Apple has actually shielded its users from advertisers on the entire web.

This would hurt the growing newsletter platforms like Substack, Revue, and MailChimp more than anyone else. Facebook is already shipping out its own newsletter for creators and might be dissing at Apple right now.

Apple Will Benefit the Most from the Newsletter Crackdown

If you’d rewind back a decade, privacy was considered a boring tech-heavy thing. The regular user would only come across it when their system forced a security update (remember those boring Windows popups?).

Hence, let’s take a minute and admire Apple’s commitment to privacy. They’ve single-handedly made privacy the biggest talking over the past few years. Users are more aware of the importance of their data and this is applause-worthy.

Sadly though, Mail Privacy Protection isn’t a win-win for all.

A lot of content creators today run independent newsletters. Knowing click open rates is a valuable metric to gauge if their work resonates. It also assists in bringing sponsorships and make a living without selling ads. To our dismay, Apple has created a hole in their newsletter business.

Now, I’ll be lying if I said Apple is doing this solely for customer satisfaction. The company certainly has its own incentives. If they didn’t, then we wouldn’t be paying them for Privacy Relay. Besides, China is exempt from Privacy Relay — which proves Apple doesn’t want to lose out on profits.

This makes me wonder if privacy is really a fundamental right or a luxury feature that Apple is selling today?

In the end, Mail Privacy Protection is definitely a good addition to user privacy. But it’s even better for Apple who’ve long switched away from traditional marketing and towards subscription-based services.

It’s not like Apple doesn’t want to make money from ads. They simply don’t need to. There’s already a loyal customer base that shells out money on every Apple product and service.

I do foresee Apple News would get more traction going forward. We saw it getting integrated with iMessage to harbor social connections. Don’t be surprised if Apple pivots it into a full-fledged newsletter platform.

iOS 15 has marked email read receipts as dead. I won’t be shocked if Apple pulls the plug from messaging receipts in the coming years.

It’s possible. They’re promoting iMessage more than ever. And it’s at discord with WhatsApp.

This article was originally published on The Big Tech.

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