I’ve been following with more than a passing interest the big debate over whether it’s an ethical breach to receive a read receipt from a sent email without the recipients’ knowledge. The controversy stemmed from the invite-only roll-out of the Andreessen Horowitz-funded premium-priced ($30/month) email app called Superhuman, which includes read receipt as a default feature.
Just as Superhuman was on the receiving side of some powerful startup buzz, Twitter’s former VP of Design penned a piece calling out this ethical violation. Ironic, given Twitter’s role in fomenting all kinds of ethical quandaries.
In Mike Davison’s initial salvo “Superhuman is Spying on You,” he wrote:
It is disappointing then that one of the most hyped new email clients, Superhuman, has decided to embed hidden tracking pixels inside of the emails its customers send out. Superhuman calls this feature “Read Receipts” and turns it on by default for its customers, without the consent of its recipients.
God forbid. Well, God did forbid given the rapidity with which his meme blew up in social. Here’s the one that caught my eye:
This is a well written, important post about how companies can bake in unethical behavior from the start. It also criticizes the @nytimes, where I first read about @Superhuman, but saw nothing this good about its privacy theft policy. https://t.co/KGx9wmtfck
— Walt Mossberg (@waltmossberg) July 3, 2019
Frankly, I’m torn. As someone who relies on email as the primary channel to engage journalists and others for client news, the “read receipt” has become an indispensable tool for knowing whether or not my idea was considered. If the recipient read my “pitch,” I will refrain from containing him/her again knowing that it was considered. It also avoids the wrath of some scribes who complain about receiving the “follow-up” note as if their email is out of order.
Yes. It’s perfectly understandable that recipients of pixel-embedded emails should be cognizant that their open will result in a pingback to the sender. But is it any worse than Google scanning the contents of your private Gmail account so as to serve up “more relevant” ads or placing tracking cookies in your browser from every website you visit? By now, digital media denizens certainly have grown accustomed to such “spying.”
In either case, the email client I use always includes a disclaimer at the end allowing the recipient to opt-out.
Given the controversy, Superhuman has apologized and changed the app’s settings so the “spying” feature is now opt-in, meaning that it still exists, but not as a default. Has it silenced the detractors?
Don’t let @Superhuman fool you with a partial reduction in its spying feature, a tracking pixel it inserts into emails its users can send without the recipient’s knowledge. Here’s a careful explanation from @mikeindustries. https://t.co/XfTJqxE6n6
— Walt Mossberg (@waltmossberg) July 9, 2019