Email Coveillance

You are being watched. A machine spies on you every hour of every day. It sees everything. Okay, maybe quoting Person of Interest’s opening credits is a bit dramatic, but as we progress through the digital age, it certainly feels like we get closer and closer to that type of world. With this seemingly inevitable outcome, I have to ask: Is there a way to reap the benefits of targeted marketing while still preserving our privacy? Email coveillance might be a step towards balancing those two priorities.

What is Email Coveillance? Well, coveillance is form of monitoring activity where those around us, our peers, are able to see themselves being recorded and can also view those recordings. Therefore, Email Coveillance is the ability to see which Emails are being tracked.

The idea behind coveillance, according to Steve Mann, is that when we see what is capturing us, along with what was captured, we generally won’t object. In Mann’s case, he was speaking in context to wearable devices that collect data for the purposes of surveillance. It doesn’t feel like so much of a stretch for this same concept to apply to Email. Or does it? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.

So, does Email coveillance exist right now? Are we able to see who is tracking us and when? Yes! Chrome extensions like PixelBlock and UglyEmail allow you to scan your Gmail for tracked emails. I used both extensions and did a quick scan of my Emails, filtered with the word “Unsubscribe”:

So which of these Emails are tracked? None apparently. How anticlimactic. Normally, when an Email is tracked, the UglyEmail extension will show this:


Im quite surprised none of my Emails were tracked. To be honest, I am a little disappointed. I wouldn’t mind companies tracking which newsletter I open. It helps them understand what kind of content I am responsive to, as well as what kind of products I want to consume. Maybe there was a compatibility issue with both extensions for me. Do you use these extensions? How well do they work for you? What are your thoughts on Email Coveillance? Let me know in the comments below.