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Testing didtheyreadit.com's Mail-Tracking Claims 400

Posted by timothy
from the fantastic-claims-require-extraordinary-evidence dept.
iosdaemon writes "didtheyreadit.com claims to be able to track your sent email: "When, exactly, your email was opened. How long your email remained opened. Where, geographically, your email was viewed. DidTheyReadIt works with every single internet provider and e-mail account, including EarthLink, AOL, NetZero, Juno, Netscape, Hotmail, Yahoo, and much more." Read on for more.
"This appears to be snake oil. I put it to test just in case someone had come up with some magical code. I sent email from a Yahoo.com account through the service, to an account on a Linux Box. Running tcpdump, I received the email from my pop and let 5 minutes pass before opening it. I left the message open with the cursor in the text for another 5 minutes. Tcpdump revealed absolutely no questionable traffic. And, the service control panel indicated the email had not been viewed. Sending email to a Yahoo.com account results in a 'read' in the service CP. But I had the message open for 10 minutes, and it indicated a 2-minute read......"

The company's "How it works" page explains the system to some degree; it involves redirecting all mail to be tracked through their servers by appending "didtheyreadit.com" to your recipient's email address. I doubt this is mutt-compatible ... Reader xrxzzy points out USAToday's article on the service as well.

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Testing didtheyreadit.com's Mail-Tracking Claims

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  • Re:this is cool (Score:5, Interesting)

    by quelrods (521005) * <quel@quel[ ].net ['rod' in gap]> on Sunday May 23, 2004 @06:31PM (#9233076) Homepage
    woops forgot to add it's direction finding skills are weak. Apparantly I'm in Michigan? I'm in Austin,TX and my POP is chicago. It appears to try to get information via one of the upstream links which is horribly inaccurate.
  • by SuperficialRhyme (731757) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @06:36PM (#9233118) Homepage
    Strange. The links work for me with Mozilla Firefox 0.8 (unless they've been corrected already and I missed the time they didn't work).
  • Re:Single pixel gif? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by 5E-0W2 (767094) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @06:55PM (#9233235)
    Could be animated gifs sent slowly? I remember back in the days of netscape 3 iirc netscape had an aquarium webcam that worked by having an animated gif and new frames getting sent as they were generated. Or perhaps it was server push (multipart mime content). It was something like that which would work for this anyway. 1996 was a long time ago.
  • Could be useful (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zerosignal (222614) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @07:05PM (#9233291) Homepage Journal
    I think this would be useful for dealing with companies with poor customer service. You can check if your mail was actually read by a human. Chances are they are all using Outlook with HTML enabled, so the tracking would work.
  • Re:Single pixel gif? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Neon Spiral Injector (21234) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @07:09PM (#9233325)
    I just tested, they send an image/jpeg with a header not specifying the length at 1 byte/second. But it is only 302 bytes long, so they can't track for more than 5 minutes. It is a real JPEG, 1x1 pixels, created with an Adobe product.
  • by J'raxis (248192) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @07:15PM (#9233360) Homepage
    The browser should take the scheme from the context of the current URL. This is valid according to the definition of a URL in the RFC.

    You know that a URL like /foo/bar is evaluated relative to the current server, right? Well, something like //www.foo.com/bar is evaluated relative to the current scheme, i.e., http.
  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:1, Interesting)

    by feargal (99776) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @07:16PM (#9233375) Homepage
    This then allows their server to know when the mail was downloaded by the user without having to rely on images.

    Bollocks. Complete and utter bollocks.

    Neither you or the moderator who considered this to be insightful have any idea what you're talking about; you clearly were taken in by their marketing material.

    When you tack their domain onto the end of the recipient's address the email is delivered to their servers. This allows them to tack on whatever insidious webbug they want to the email, and possibly mine your email for marketing information while they are at it.

    The email is then delivered onto the recipient's mailserver, just as if you had sent it directly.

    Once it accepts it, they have absolutely no fucking way of knowing what that mailserver does with it. When the user downloads it, they will not receive any special gilt-edged notification of the event which you would normally be denied.

    The only trick they rely on is the images thing.

    Any claims otherwise are complete and utter lies.

    In case I wasn't clear enough, bollocks.
  • Re:DNS fun... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 23, 2004 @07:36PM (#9233491)
    Probably because mail.cluster1.didtheyreadit.com points to 3 different IP addresses.. Not sure why they didn't just make 3 separate MX records.
  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:5, Interesting)

    by orthogonal (588627) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @08:09PM (#9233681) Journal
    So not only will it not work in text-based email clients (such as mutt), it won't work in modern versions of Outlook which block inline images by default

    Let's be even more sensible: your firewall rules should allow your email client to make connections to your mail server ONLY, and only to its ports 110 and 25 (I'm assuming POP3; IMAP would be other orts).

    (Not for linux users: Microsoft Windows firewalls typically allow setting rules separately for separate applications, by associating a process name (and in serious firewalls, the executable's MD5 sum) with the process requesting the connection.)

    This takes care of all web bugs, inline images, and javascript pop-ups or Active-x in Microsoft HTML email.

    Note that with any sensible email client, this won't block html links, as clicking an html link should invoke a separate browser application, with its own firewall rules.

    It will block linked (not inline) images, but only a very small minority of email linked images that are at all useful to view -- in this case I just save the email as html and open in a web browser.
  • by NitsujTPU (19263) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @08:16PM (#9233717)
    Things like this remind me of the most paranoid, annoying, emailers that I deal with daily. Something like 1 in 1000 emails are the type that I would ever stick a receipt on. For the most part, even those I would ask for a friendly reply in the text at the bottom.

    At work, I am somewhat compelled to use outlook. Here's my favorite setting:

    1) Automatically unflag incoming messages:
    -Think noone reads your email? Why not flag every message you send. That way, they'll all look importat... or, the important ones will get lost in the see of red flags.

    Do any of you have settings that would be good in Outlook?
  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:3, Interesting)

    by thrillseeker (518224) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @08:45PM (#9233862)
    Mozilla Thunderbird has the same feature

    Mozilla-Thunderbird needs to make their version more like Evolution's, which has the option of allowing inline images from addresses you have put into your address book.

  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ciggieposeur (715798) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @09:00PM (#9233930)
    I found that browsers were cacheing them, so it wouldn't always register if it was viewed in a webmail acount.

    PATENT ALERT

    I am about to describe a patented technique. Seriously. If you ever think you're going to implement a web bug, do not read this or IBM will be able to sue you for treble damages.

    Since a) I no longer work for IBM, and b) the method is on file in the patent, I am not violating my IP contract with IBM by describing this method.

    .
    .
    .

    PATENT ALERT

    .
    .
    .

    Method:

    The way to defeat browser caching is to make the IMG SRC point to a CGI that returns a REDIRECT (302) that points to the single-pixel image. So you might have IMG SRC="server/path/to/cgi?key1=val1&key2=val2". The browser will have to tick the CGI because it has "dynamic" parameters. However, the CGI has to return a REDIRECT because an intelligent proxy server in the middle might be trying to cache the output too. You don't care if the single-pixel image itself is cached, you just want to capture the CGI hit with all the parameters.

  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jonadab (583620) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @09:02PM (#9233946) Homepage Journal
    You're assuming he would prefer to view the message HTML-formatted rather than
    in plaintext, which for most users who know the difference is not the case.

    Viewing in plain text has the advantage of providing a consistent look and
    feel for every message, always using the reader's preference for fonts and
    colors, among other things. (There are a few exceptions, but most people
    prefer the fonts and colors *they* like over the ones other people want them
    to see, except in special circumstances such as when having a discussion
    about fonts and colors.)

    It's all moot for me; I use Gnus. Currently I have it set to only display
    text/plain parts and show anything else as an attachment, which I can save
    and view if I choose. This means HTML mail has the From and Subject fields
    to convince me it's not spam. It's been years since I received an HTML
    message that wasn't spam, incidentally, and I get a *lot* of mail. I do
    sometimes receive multipart/alternative messages that aren't spam, but the
    plain text part always shows fine in that case.

    I *could* configure Gnus to display HTML parts, using W3, or to launch a
    browser, such as Mozilla, but I choose not to configure it that way because
    I prefer to view the plaintext alternative, and like I said it's been years
    since I received an HTML-only message that wasn't unsolicited bulkmail.

    Back to topic, the didtheygetit.com claim that the service works regardless
    of what client the recipient uses is obviously not only bogus for their
    specific product but in fact a totally impossible thing for any product to
    deliver, unless the content is munged into a form that they are *unable*
    to view without alerting you, such as an executable that unencrypts and
    displays the text after phoning home -- but something like that would be so
    odious to so many recipients that the sender would by using it be decreasing
    significantly the chances that the message would be read at all, which would
    rather defeat the purpose of the whole idea. In other words, it's an utterly
    impossible thing to deliver. OTOH, they only claim it works in 98% of cases
    and carefully qualify this saying "in our testing", which presumably means
    they didn't test with geeks who use carefully selected high-quality mail
    readers; they probably tested mostly with Outlook, two or three popular
    webmail services, and maybe Eudora or Netscape. I can positively guarantee
    that it would never work with Pegasus Mail (though pmail *does* support read
    receipts, but only if the user has turned them on in the prefs; they're
    off by default), and obviously it doesn't work with my particular config
    of Gnus. (I don't know about a default Gnus config, but that's largely not
    a significant issue since people who leave settings at their defaults don't
    tend to use Gnus in the first place; it's very much geared toward people
    who like to change lots of options.) Clearly it also wouldn't work with
    mutt or pine or anything like that, and *obviously* it wouldn't work if
    the user talks to the POP3 server directly (which I happen to have just
    done yesterday, though I only looked at three or four messages that way,
    and I'm atypical, being the maintainer of the Net::Server::POP3 module).

    I can imagine that it might be useful to some people nonetheless, especially
    in a largely homogenous corporate environment wherein it is predictable what
    mail client everyone or almost everyone uses. But clearly they're very much
    exaggerating (at best) when they claim it works irrespective of the client.
  • by whoever57 (658626) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @09:15PM (#9234013) Journal
    At the same address is The firm of Rampell & Rampell, PA [rampell.com]

    A multi-talented family? Accountants, Software, [rampellsoft.com] and now a web-based business.

    The software seems to be keyloggers and others.

  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:3, Interesting)

    by antic (29198) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @10:53PM (#9234496)
    Very true, but this company is hardly going to complain if they can get a $49.95 subscription out of these people before they realise that particular short-coming...

    I give them credit for the "idea" and definitely the implemention (adding ".didtheyreadit" to the end of a standard email address), so best of luck to them.

    And they certainly have achieved fantastic press with this slashdot exposure: suddenly a large group of people know the name, what it does, how it works and how much it costs...

  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:3, Interesting)

    by johnnyb (4816) <jonathan@bartlettpublishing.com> on Sunday May 23, 2004 @11:57PM (#9234753) Homepage
    The only problem with this is that it encourages people to include images already attached - meaning spammers will send images WITH their emails, causing even more bandwidth to be lost even if you don't open it. With remote images, you get the advantage of only sending the images to people who care.
  • Re:fp! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by senatorpjt (709879) on Sunday May 23, 2004 @11:57PM (#9234754)
    OK, so, who's going to set up a free service that duplicates what DidTheyReadIt does. It uses almost no bandwidth (you're only loading a 1x1 pixel image off a webserver). I'd do it if I had any hosting capability whatsoever.

    The entire point of a free service would be 1) to educate people as to why this is pointless and 2) to make it unprofitable and drive these people out of business.
  • by kc8jhs (746030) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:49AM (#9234955)
    The shocking thing was, in the interview, the founder/inventor(not)/designer/coder whatever he was, claimed that large large portions of mail actually gets lost on the internet.

    A gentleman called in from a design engineering firm who emails large documents to other members of the firm and other associates around the country. The "expert" insisted that the didtheyreadit.com was the perfect service for them to assure that their emails made it there and were in fact read.

    My question was this, how does email between two people who regularly email each other, and are probably expecting it, "get lost"? This was a major point that the guy was making, which seemed to me like he was spreading classic FUD.

    Lets make sure that our friends aren't using this product for those reasons! Assure them that undeliverable mail will be properly reported back to them always, and show them how to set their mail clients to always accept mail from those in their address books!

    -Mikey P
  • by HarryZink (68053) on Monday May 24, 2004 @01:23AM (#9235101)
    I was the recipient of Ricardo Batista's marketing spam announcing this 'service'. Noting several problems with it, I replied to his e-mail (doing a 'reply all'), and informed him not only of my concerns, but also pointed out that now all the morons thinking they get $5,000 from Bill Gates and Walt Disney Jr. will resurface with renewed efforts to convince their famiies to forward mail "because now it can be tracked, here's proof..."

    Well, turns out that Ricardo had a 'setting' wrong on his mail server, or whatever, as my response to him was also broadcast to his entire spam list.

    - He neglected to supress the recipient list.
    - 'customers@batista.org' was aliased to his customer list.
    - He allow any non-local reply to take advantage of that.

    As confirmation, Ricardo sent me an e-mail pointing out *my* mistake in replaying 'all', and the subsequent deluge of 'bounced mails' and other recipients responding pretty much corroborated this.

    Whoops.

    Granted, this is a simple mistake that could happen to anyone (well, not really) but doesn't paint to rosy a picture of someone claiming to provide an expert e-mail service.

    I have no idea why someone like Ricardo Batista would jump on doing something so obviously silly and transparently flawed (I guess rent needs paying), but I wonder how mnay (if any) people will fall for this.

    Harry
  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ip_fired (730445) on Monday May 24, 2004 @01:29AM (#9235125) Homepage
    I don't think they will start sending images with it. It will make their e-mail campaign much less effective. Given that a good sized html message is probably 8Kb, if you add images, it will triple or quadruple the size of the message. This means they will only be able to send a quarter of the normal messages at a time. Remember too that their lists probably aren't "clean". This means that they will be wasting that much more bandwidth and time on invalid e-mails.

    So do your part! Enter false information into their database as much as possible! Fill in invalid e-mails on those little "raffle" tickets that you see trying to raffle off a car in the mall. Make sure it's an AOL account or something that delays sending back an error response instead of the instant error notifaction that some mail providers give. That way they have to worry about parsing the e-mail. Perhaps to make it even easier, maybe AOL could start sending randomized text back in their error messages to confuse the spammer's parsers.
  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ip_fired (730445) on Monday May 24, 2004 @01:38AM (#9235164) Homepage
    There is a problem with SpamAssassin in that you can get around the little web-bug feature with a little setup on the server side. If the spammer were smart, they would use mod_rewrite to change the url from:

    http://spammerserver.com/cgi-bin/redirect.pl?id= [m d5sum]

    to:

    http://spammerserver.com/images/[md5sum]/image.j pg

    Apache then takes the a out of the url, rewrites it, and redirects it to a script which then records the hit from the user and notes that this address is valid.

    Spam filters out there need to find a good way of detecting unique identifiers that can be used to track a user.

    I'm personally moving towards the scorched earth method with my personal e-mail account. Blcok everything that isn't on my whitelist. If I know you, you're on my whitelist. It's certainly not the best method, but I hate spam.
  • Re:DNS fun... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by grozzie2 (698656) on Monday May 24, 2004 @02:05AM (#9235272)
    mail is handled by 10 mail.cluster1.didtheyreadit.com.

    Ok, a little more digging. mail.cluster1.didtheyreadit.com resolves to 3 consecutive ip addresses. Repeat the process for www.didtheyreadit.com and you find that the same 3 ip address resolve to that. This smells a lot like somebody has gone to the effort to build a high availability cluster for dealing with mail, just based on the consecutive ip's and the telltale names.

    Interesting, this same cluster is also set up to provide the backing infrastructure to do email tracking via embedded images.

    Obviously these guys are set up to handle volume, so, that does prompt a question. Are there really enough people using this service to load up 3 mail servers in a cluster configuration ? Or is it possible they have the infrastructure in place for another business, and they are leveraging it to do this too ?

    I just dont see the 'didtheyreadthat.com' business being large enough to swamp 3 machines processing the outgoing mail, and the incoming image connections. But, if this is just a sideline for machines that are spending the day tracking inline images on spam, it sure makes sense. A whole new business leveraged off existing infrastructure.

  • Re:DNS fun... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by shani (1674) <shane@time-travellers.org> on Monday May 24, 2004 @02:27AM (#9235345) Homepage
    Two things about fallback mail servers.

    The first is that Internet mail has retry functionality built in. If your mail server goes off-line for a few minutes, most clients won't notice. It's not an immediate service like HTTP. Personally, I only have a backup MX for my personal domain because my box is physically located at my employer's office. The company could unplug it (permanently!) at any moment. People I trust - companies not one iota.

    The other thing is, as other people have mentioned, this service relies on embedded 1-byte images retrieved by mail clients using HTTP. In this case, if their HTTP servers are off-line, the service is basically non-functional. In this case, having the MX delivery fail may actually be a feature. If the MX fails at the same time as the web server, you avoid having mail delivered when it can't be tracked.

    Incidentally, this side-effect of having related service failures is one reason I think that the DNS requirements of having DNS servers available in multiple networks is probably bogus for many services. For a lot of companies, if you HTTP server is off line, why would you care that DNS is working? Why would you spend any time or money making your DNS more reliable than your web service? (My guess is that DNS weenies consider reliable DNS an end, rather than a means.)
  • Simple! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by le_jfs (627582) on Monday May 24, 2004 @03:08AM (#9235455) Journal
    echo 127.0.0.1 didtheyreadit.com >> /etc/hosts

  • Re:How it 'works' (Score:3, Interesting)

    by byolinux (535260) on Monday May 24, 2004 @05:16AM (#9235869) Journal
    Mail.app under OS X also has this.

    Open a Terminal...

    defaults write com.apple.mail PreferPlainText -bool TRUE

    Voila, any stupid HTML email will be displayed as text only.
  • by jzap (134887) <jzap@jzap.com> on Monday May 24, 2004 @07:06AM (#9236127) Homepage
    They put a 1x1 image in the HTML e-mail with a (long) unique number in the SRC URL. The unique number identifies the sent message. When your e-mail client tries to fetch the image, they send the header right away (type=image/jpeg), but they trickle the data to you at one byte per second. This keeps the connection open for as long as you view the message. When you stop viewing the message, the connection closes, and their timer stops.

    I'd show you what a dump of an 118-byte-long version of their JPEG image looks like, but the Slashdot Lameness Filter didn't like all those "junk" characters! However, you can view the dump here: http://jzap.com/img/ReadItBug.jpeg.txt [jzap.com]

  • by nahdude812 (88157) on Monday May 24, 2004 @07:21AM (#9236185) Homepage
    Given that it re-routes all the replies through their service, I'd wager that they are at least smart enough to mark a message as read if they get a reply for it through their network.

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