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Spies in Our Email

February 3, 2021

We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!

So spoke Howard Beale in the disturbing movie Network. But, alas, we are going to take it more, and more, and more. It will only get worse.

Like most of us I get a lot of email. A lot of it comes from vendors and the press. Some would consider this spam, but as an EE I need it to keep up with the state of the industry. It's generally rife with advertising but we know that's the price of using the "free" internet.

What I object to is the tracking. Every move you make is logged and sent back to the overlords. Even email from what one would consider a friendly source is bursting with spycraft. Consider Electronic Design: this morning I got the usual daily (sometimes it feels more like hourly) email from them. One of the links included is:

https://endeavor.omeclk.com/portal/wts/ugmc%7C9egjy2Lehkv3LjC2v8t2eow4g%5ECbRAXNb%5E7r2N3-h0xO%7CfsffOjRq3E5m6v%7C%5ExmCza

Let's dissect this. First, hidden within that nastiness is perhaps 20 characters that would be useful to me, the reader. Those would direct me to the article referenced in the email.

But no. There are 122 characters. Assuming those are from the set of the 95 viewable ASCII characters, 122 characters would let them specify 95122 distinct items. There are only about 1070 protons in the universe. What are these people doing? Or thinking?

Now look at the start of the URL: https://endeavor.omeclk.com. Is that Electronic Design? I always hover over links before clicking, and this is so unlike what I'd expect (something like electronicdesign.com) that it instantly raises hackles. Is this a phishing expedition? What is it the faceless droids at omeclk.com do with my information?

So I went to their privacy policy (if you can call it that). It's 10 pages long. Really, ED, is that the way to treat readers? Here's one highlight:

We use industry-standard, third party advertising service companies, such as AdRoll, to target and serve advertisements when you visit our Sites or open our emails. These third party companies may use cookies, pixel tags, and other similar technologies to collect information about your visit to our Web Site, and other websites, in order to provide you with relevant advertisements about products, services, and events. These collection methods do not typically include your name, address, or telephone number. [Highlight added]

"Not typically". I have to assume that this means they collect my name, address and telephone number. Note that nothing is said about email address. Or gender. Shoe size.

Another snippet from their "privacy policy":

Based on that information, and with our permission, third-party advertisers, such as AdRoll and Feathr, can place cookies to enable them to...

It's my computer and yet they invite some unknown number of possibly unseemly companies I have no interest in to drop their cookie dung on my disk.

Now, ED is hardly alone. Citibank sent me a link today that is 278 characters long.

When I wrote for Embedded Systems Design magazine I often complained to them about their link tracking and use of deceptive URLs, to no effect.

I'm mad as hell and I guess I'm going to keep taking it!

Aside: I send out a twice-a-month newsletter which has no tracking. Nada. It takes an effort to turn the automatic tracking off (that has to be done on each and every issue I release), as the mail list manager we use wants to seed all of the links with insidious ways to watch what my readers click on. And my website does not track anything; we don't even use cookies as I despise the things, even though a few - a very few - are indeed useful.

Feel free to email me with comments.

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