Email profiling—the cookieless tracking technique

The term email profiling is generating quite a buzz in the advertising world. While a lot of people may not know what it is and what it does, it’s important that you do. Why? Because your data might be at risk!

is email profiling a concern

Let's look at this familiar scenario. You register on a new web application—say an e-commerce app. You browse the latest collection of apparel, like a few catchy ones, and close the app without buying anything. Now, you open another web application and see that the products you browsed in the e-commerce app appear there, and most likely at discounted rates.

How does that happen? The advertisers had smartly tracked you with cookies and displayed ads according to your interests. But why are we talking about cookies? Because knowledge about these tracker cookies is pertinent to email profiling.

You're a smart cookie!

Open any website and you’re immediately annoyed because a cookie banner pops up asking you to choose your cookie preferences. Cookies are small data blocks generated by the web server when you visit a website. The codes are stored on your device, which the browser sends to the website when you visit it again so that the website can recognize you. A cookie imparted by a website is unique to that site, meaning no other websites can tamper with it or track you using it.

As with all things, cookies were created for brands to connect with the audience who visit their websites and applications. For example, without cookies, you'd be logging into that e-commerce application every time and there'd be no tailored recommendations. Cookies can track and remember much more than your identity. They can trace your entire journey on a web application—what pages you visit, how long you spend on each page, what products you click on, which ones you like, and more.

However, many people actually welcome their online journey being tracked. According to a research study on consumer preferences around online privacy conducted by Google and Ipsos, 91% of internet users aged 16-74 are more likely to shop with brands that provide offers and recommendations relevant to them.

So what's all the fuss around cookies stealing people's data? First, we need to understand more about them, such as the fact that there are two kinds: first-party and third-party cookies.

The rogue one

First-party cookies are the ones sent to your browser by the website on which you land. For example, when you visit for the first time, Amazon will have its own cookies to track your journey, which saves your “searched items” for you. People welcome these first-party cookies because it makes it easier to pick up where you left off on a website.

On the other hand, advertisers also use third-party cookies to track and even steal your data without your consent or knowledge. There are websites with several ad spaces inside them where ads from multiple services are displayed. For example, you’re exposed to nearly 100 cookies just by reading certain news articles. Simply landing on these websites is enough for the advertisers to track and retarget you with ads when you visit other websites.

It's these third-party cookies that are of grave concern because you have no idea who's tracking you. You can be tricked into clicking on an ad with a tempting offer that may contain malicious links.

That's why, in the past few years, severe steps have been taken to put an end to these third-party cookies. EU declared cookie banners illegal because they were not compliant with GDPR data collection. The Safari, Firefox, and Chrome browsers have made changes in their cookie policies claiming to phase out third-party cookies.

Because many advertisers' primary targeting weapon is going to disappear, they’ve now resorted to a new privacy-compliant, browser-supported method for gleaning your data—email profiling.

So, what’s email profiling?

Email profiling is a cookieless data collection method where advertisers can track you even without cookies. You can set up ad blockers, reject cookies, or not log in to a site/app at all, and they'll still be able to identify you. A tracker can use personally identifiable information (PII) to identify you individually and cohort you with a user group of similar interests. By profiling you, they can target users with ads or sell your data to third parties.

Email profiling takes advantage of the information you enter willingly when you register on websites or applications with your email address. When you reject cookies, advertisers can still run scripts on the page that enable them to track you. They can then feed this data into an analytics tool that will help capture the complete picture of your journey.

This process is done on the server side where your email address is converted into hash values (a string of letters or numbers that preserves users' identities) and a unique server-side ID is associated with your data.

To visualize it better, consider the e-commerce app example that we mentioned above. You register on an e-commerce web app and it stores your information. Let's say you browse for shoes. The web app has ad spaces on multiple sites and you sign in to one of them—say a news site—using the same email address. Because both logins have the same email ID, advertisers can merge these two logins through email profiling and display ads of shoes on those ad spaces.

Some advertisers even go a step further and track you using IP addresses, too. So, even if someone in your family registers on the same app using different credentials, advertisers can still track the IP addresses, determine that the app has been accessed from the same IP address as yours, and display ads of interest to you.

For technical information about email profiling, you can refer to this link.

Why is email profiling a concern?

Providing your information to a popular website or application may not be risky at all. However, sometimes we get swayed by a tempting coupon here or a juicy article there and end up registering on dozens of websites. We don't know if the websites are trustworthy or silently stealing our data and selling it to third parties.

How can you avoid being profiled?

Sadly, there's no easy fix where you simply disable a setting to avoid email profiling. There are a few ways to avoid being profiled, but you should keep these in mind when visiting any and every website.

  • Use reputed ad blockers on the web and mobile devices while browsing sites.
  • If you're using a password manager, make sure it's password protected and doesn't use autofill.
  • Avoid entering your email address/details on every website you visit.
  • If you register on websites for a short-time purpose, use disposable email addresses. For example, you can create email aliases with Zoho Mail to use when you sign up for websites if you don't want to be tracked.
  • In case you're worried about missing any emails from any website you visit, you can configure a catch-all email address to ensure the emails sent to your domain don't get missed.

A disposable email address is one of the best ways to prevent your data being tracked from this emerging profiling method.

There's a saying, when one door closes another one opens. In this case, as more regulations and advanced technologies rise to protect your privacy, new data-stealing techniques like email profiling are also popping up. It's imperative as users that we have a thorough understanding about how our private data can be compromised and know how to proactively take preventive measures to secure them.

Privacy is a fundamental right that we shouldn't have to compromise even in the name of innovation. Hence, in the spirit of Data Privacy Week (Jan 22-28), we encourage you to increase your awareness about how to better protect your data.

Zoho Mail never sells your data to third parties or indulges in data mining to show you targeted ads. Your data is collected to solely enrich your Zoho Mail experience and to improve our service. We are always transparent about what data we collect and we always keep you in the loop for any data collection. If you want to enjoy top-notch privacy, sign up for Zoho Mail and get the best email experience. 

We are curious and excited to know the steps you have taken to preserve your privacy. Let us know in the comments below!


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