I’m Spying On You Right Now

You’re being watched. Can you feel it? As you read this post, little bots behind the scenes track you and your interactions. Creepy, right?

I’m Spying On You Right Now
Photo by Dmitry Ratushny / Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I confessed to being a nosy neighbor. My eye catches every movement out my office window. I’ve always been good at deducing information based on observations; it’s probably part of my architect personality type. As good as I am at making observations out my window, it pales in comparison to how I’m spying on you while you read this post.

You’re being watched. Can you feel it? Regardless of where you’re reading this, little bots behind the scenes track you and your interactions.

  • Medium tracks how much time you spend on the page to determine if you “read” the entire article or not. They provide this information to me through stats. I can’t see specifically who read or viewed the content, just the totalnumber of how many did.
  • My website uses WordPress. The JetPack plugin, created by Automattic (the company behind WordPress), tracks basic browsing behavior. The data includes what pages on the site are popular, search terms used to find my site, and what country you’re in.
  • My weekly newsletter sends through Revue, owned by Twitter. They track who opens the newsletter, how many times they view the email, and what links you click. Unlike the other two places, Revue (and every other email newsletter program I’ve tried) provides detailed stats that include your individual activities. If you opened this as an email, I know.

Here’s the thing, I want to avoid spying on you. I do everything possible to keep these websites from running surveillance on me, including installing tracking blockers on my web browser and email client. But, as the creator of content, I really have no choice in the matter.

Medium and Revue provide tracking by default. There’s no “off” switch anywhere in the settings. I could turn the JetPack plugin off on my website, but it also provides essential services like spam protection and downtime monitoring in addition to the stats.

Sure, as a content creator, the stats are important. They tell me what stories land and what don’t. I’m fine with aggregate surveillance like the information Medium provides. However, there are zero benefits in knowing precisely who clicks what link in an email. I don’t need that information at all and cannot think of a valid reason where I would.

Apple’s upcoming versions of iOS and macOS come with built-in prevention of browser and email tracking. I strongly recommend you turn those on when they’re available. I’m not a security researcher and can’t tell you how well those means will prevent me from spying on you, but everything is a step in the right direction.

I share this with you not because I want to scare you into unfollowing (please don’t unfollow). Instead, I share it because spying on you is a problem without a real solution. Every site you visit online, every email you open — basically everything you do online is being tracked whether you like it or not.

I do everything I can to avoid identifiable information, but it’s almost impossible to avoid when sending a newsletter. If you have suggestions for options, I’m all ears! Until the people who make the digital tools we all use to provide additional options to mitigate personal surveillance, I’ll continue spying on you while you read my writing.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!