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The Federal Government Offers a Case Study in Bad Email Tracking

EFF: “The U.S. government sends a lot of emails. Like any large, modern organization, it wants to “optimize” for “user engagement” using “analytics” and “big data.” In practice, that means tracking the people it communicates with—secretly, thoroughly, and often, insecurely. Granicus is a third-party contractor that builds communication tools to help governments engage constituents online. The company offers services for social media, websites, and email, and it boasts of serving over 4,000 federal, state, and local agencies, from the city of Oakland to the U.S. Veterans Administration to In 2016, the company merged with GovDelivery, another government-services provider. It appears that parts of the federal government have been working with GovDelivery, now Granicus, since at least 2012. Last October, we took a closer look at some of the emails sent with Granicus’s platform, specifically those from the mailing list, which used the GovDelivery email service until very recently. The White House changed its email management platform shortly after we began our investigation for this article. However, several other agencies and many state and city governments still use Granicus as their mailing list distributors.

The emails we looked at, sent to subscribers of the email list in October 2018, happen to be an exemplary case study of everything wrong with the email tracking landscape, from unintentional and intentional privacy leaks to a failure to adhere to basic security standards. Not only does Granicus know exactly who is opening which email and when, but in the emails we studied, all of that information is sent without encryption by default, so network observers can see it too. Ironically, even the White House’s Privacy Policy is hidden behind one of the tracking link…”

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