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Most newsletters that I receive use mass-mailing software that rewrites links to add tracking information. That is, instead of www.google.com, the email will point to something like links.somecompany.com/?xyz=unique-id, which redirects to the final URL. Mailchimp, for example, calls this click tracking. 29 of the last 30 mass emails I received included tracking links.

Is there a way to opt out of this tracking, or to visit the final link without being tracked? Something like do-not-track for email links, or a centralized way to opt out of click tracking from most larger email marketers?

Alternatively, do any email providers take measures against this? (Gmail has defenses in place against pixel beacons, I think, but nothing against click tracking as far as I can tell).

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    StackExchange didn't used to use tracking links in email, but now they do.
    – pseudon
    Apr 2 '20 at 1:14
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Of the two main forms of email tracking, remote content has easier protections. Many email clients allow you to turn this off. You can test your email client settings here: https://www.emailprivacytester.com

Click tracking is harder to avoid. There may be some trackers that allow an after-the-fact "opt out", but that's risky and is not likely to allow you to delete the data (more likely to only suppress targeting based on the data collected, if these "opt outs" exist at all).

A few possible strategies:

  • Hover over links to see if there's a tracker, and if there is, never click;
  • Use a browser to search or surf to the sender's website and find the content manually;
  • Add chaff to the tracking by using a script that repeatedly "clicks" the links. This could help disguise when and how often the link is manually clicked, but in practice is challenging because you'd have to mimic the fingerprint of the email client;
  • Copy the link and paste it into a privacy-protective browser like Tor. They'll know you "clicked" and when, but they won't get your real IP address or device fingerprint, and therefore their ability to correlate that "click" with your other internet activity is minimized.

Click tracking triggers a range of privacy violations (read receipt, time of click, device and email client data, etc.) The best strategy depends on your priorities for which violations you are trying most to defend against.

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  • You can also consider changing numeric IDs in the links. This sometimes works. To not interfere with other recipients, try swapping the numbers/hex digits to zeros or just remove the &id=… part altogether. Note, this is arguably illegal in some countries though that legal interpretation seems (to a non-lawyer!) to be fickle. If you're not doing it at scale, it's likely fine (but this is not legal advice).
    – Adam Katz
    Apr 2 '20 at 18:26
  • Sometimes the redirect target URL is even in the tracking link. I downloaded a PDF a few days ago by extracting that target URL instead of clicking.
    – pseudon
    Apr 2 '20 at 18:29
  • BTW, I dug deep into Mailchimp's privacy policy and related policies... I'm not a lawyer, but in theory, they are GDPR-compliant (if you live in the right country) and will seemingly remove your info (or forward a request for removal to the sender). But to do this with any regularity, even if you are lucky enough to be in a GDPR country, with the long tail of bulk emailers hardly seems efficient, reliable, or sustainable.
    – pseudon
    Apr 2 '20 at 18:32

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