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    You Are Being Tracked: E-Mail Style

    Most people probably already know that they are being tracked.  There are all sorts of programs and ways to do this at all sorts of levels.  For instance your ISP may track you and give (sell) your data to a company like Hitwise – privacy policy can be found here.  I actually saw this in a newscast last week.   They interviewed some guy about what popular search terms are and tried to make it sound creepy.  Amazing! People search for weird stuff on the internet like “how to make bombs” and *gasp* “porn”.  This guy must be some sort of genius!  And he looks at historical data! Brilliant!

    Hopefully you know that Google keeps track of everything you have searched for.  Ever.  Anyway, the part that people probably don’t know as much about is how individual sites track you.  One way a site can track you is by tagging you when you click through on an e-mail they send you – the focus of this post.  Think of tags as dated stamps in your passport book.  Interestingly enough, some of this tagging can be easily found in the address bar of your browser.

    When you see something in the address bar that looks like emid=584783 that is telling the website that your internal – meaning site specific- e-mail address ID is 584783.  This value is unique to a single e-mail address. Each e-mail sent to that e-mail address will have their unique emid attached to all links in the e-mail. This also allows a site to build a history of that e-mail address – not only for activity, but for response rate as well.  Now every time you click through an e-mail for that site they have more history.  Note that larger sites rarely look at individual behavior but instead classify a behavior and then analyze that group.  Still, the information is there.

    In addition to an e-mail ID, there is usually a campaign variable such as cid=Sep08FreeShipping.  This allows the site to report on everything with Sep08FreeShipping stored in the cid variable. All of this information is contained within the link that you click from the e-mail. If you get the e-mail and directly load their site, not through the e-mail, the activity will not be tracked because in a direct load no value would have been assigned to cid.

    These variables do not have to remain in the web address the entire time.  They are stored in the background after the initial click. So when you no longer see emid or cid in the address bar, but originally arrived at the site through the e-mail, you and your activity is still being tracked.

    Look for at least one more installment of how you are tracked. There I will focus more on how a site tracks internal campaigns. Hope this helped give some people a better understanding of how websites track you.

    5 responses to “You Are Being Tracked: E-Mail Style”

    1. GHamilton says:

      Being in web development, I’m always cognizant of the address I’m at. If there’s query strings added, I can usually figure out what they’re there for and a quick and dirty to way to avoid some tracking is just to change the parameters.

      I did want to mention that Google does not keep everything you’ve ever searched for. The length of time they used to keep it was 2 years, but as of last year dropped it to 18 months (http://www.crunchgear.com/2007/06/13/google-bows-to-privacy-concerns-shortens-length-of-time-it-keeps-search-history/). In web time though, I could easily see that as forever.

      But at least they’re not making the mistake that AOL did by releasing their search history to the world.

    2. theecakescraps says:

      GHamilton-

      I thought I remember reading – though I cannot find the article – that while Google will not keep history on a specific IP/User for longer than 18 months they still keep a history of terms searched on Google, and have kept the log since day one. This would give insight into a question such as “What % of search terms included the word Democrat or Republican over the last 4 years”. If I find the link I will post an update including that link and the one you posted.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

    3. […] Search History Update In my post You Are Being Tracked: E-mail Style there was some discussion/confusion about when I said: Hopefully you know that Google keeps track […]

    4. […] Are Being Tracked: Internal Campaigns So you know that you are tracked by e-mails.  You are going to beat the system.  You are not even going to use a search term to get to the […]

    5. […] and acquire new ones.  They will do what it takes to get to that point.  They will track you with e-mail and internal campaigns as well as buy lists from various vendors.  If you don’t like it then […]

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