Posted by Lance Koonce

Recently a friend sent me an email message that contained, in the footer, a message stating that the email had been sent via “MSGTAG”. Curious, I visited the website for this product, and learned that MSGTAG is an email “read receipt” program. The difference between this program and the read receipt function in MS Outlook and other widely-used email software is that the recipient does not receive a pop-up window asking whether he or she wants to send a read receipt – MSGTAG automatically does that. Further, if you upgrade to a pay version of the software, you can eliminate the footer message altogether. Then you can track all of your emails, and whether and when the recipients opened them, without the recipient knowing that his or her activity is being tracked.

It turns out that there are a number of programs out there that perform this function, using different methodology. Indeed, MSGTAG may be one of the most above-board in the way it describes and advertises its product, and in terms of the limitations it purports to impose on its product’s functionality. For instance, apparently some programs allow users to see when and to whom their email has been forwarded, whereas MSGTAG does not.

There appear to be some technical limitations on these types of programs that I will not get into here, but the very concept of someone receiving updates about what’s happened to their email once it has arrived on my desktop causes a cold shiver to run down my spine. We have learned to be wary of emails from strangers that may deposit unwanted payloads in the form of spyware and viruses. We’ve even learned to be wary of emails from friends that seem odd or contain strange attachments. But must we now be wary of friends and colleagues who may have a different sense of what constitutes someone’s personal prrivacy than we do?

I am a litigator by training, and the concept that, for instance, an opposing counsel might send an email to me and then track the persons to whom I forward it is pure anathema to the idea of collegial relationships between counsel. Surely the next step, technologically, is to take a “peek” at the content of the covering email that forwards the original? While almost everyone would agree that taking such a step is over the line (it certainly fits the definition of “spyware” in my book), these are the baby steps that the less scrupulous (or more paranoid) among us might just be tempted to take. And there doth lie the road to hell. (Or, one hopes, jail).

As mentioned above, I recognize that there are technological reasons why these products don’t always work well – but I’d be interested in hearing any comments from folks who have experience with them, and especially anyone who can explain why I’m over-reacting (other than by pointing out that that I’m, as always, the last to know of their existence).

Finally, apparently there are others who have concerns about these programs.