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DuckDuckGo launches new Email Protection service to remove trackers

DuckDuckGo launches new Email Protection service to remove trackers

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This is your chance to get an ‘@duck.com’ email address

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An illustration of a letter envelope with a target over it with pixels floating around both.
Illustration by Maria Chimishkyan

DuckDuckGo is launching a new email privacy service meant to stop ad companies from spying on your inbox.

The company’s new Email Protection feature gives users a free “@duck.com” email address, which will forward emails to your regular inbox after analyzing their contents for trackers and stripping any away. DuckDuckGo is also extending this feature with unique, disposable forwarding addresses, which can be generated easily in DuckDuckGo’s mobile browser or through desktop browser extensions.

The personal DuckDuckGo email is meant to be given out to friends and contacts you know, while the disposable addresses are better served when signing up for free trials, newsletters, or anywhere you suspect might sell your email address. If the email address is compromised, you can easily deactivate it.

These tools are similar to anti-tracking features implemented by Apple in iOS 14 and iOS 15, but DuckDuckGo’s approach integrates into iOS, Android, and all major web browsers. DuckDuckGo will also make it easier to spin up disposable email addresses on the fly, for newsletters or anywhere you might share your email.

Tackling email privacy has been a major goal for DuckDuckGo, as the company pushes for privacy-friendly methods for various online tasks. The company began with its eponymous DuckDuckGo search engine and has more recently introduced its own mobile browser and desktop browser extensions to remove trackers while surfing the web.

Email trackers exist in more than 70 percent of mailing lists, according to a highly cited 2017 study. Once implemented, they let advertisers figure out when you open email, where you are when you open it, and which device you’re using. Removing trackers from email removes data points from lists building hidden advertising profiles on you, which have become a priority for privacy advocates in recent years.

Weinberg said that consumer research showed that asking people to switch to an entirely new email address and provider would be a tough pitch. So instead of creating a new email service, the Email Protection tool acts as an intermediary layer guarding access to your inbox.

“Our high-level goal is to make simple privacy protection available for everyone anywhere they are,” CEO Gabriel Weinberg tells The Verge. “So we’re trying to build this into any major browser or operating system or email provider you use.”

iPhone users might recognize the concept of a relay email address, a feature that Apple introduced with iOS 14 called Hide My Email. When signing up for an app through an Apple device, your iPhone can suggest a randomized Apple email address. Emails hit the random address, preventing the app from knowing your real email. In Apple’s iOS 15, the company is introducing similar features to confuse email trackers and protect privacy.

Weinberg explains that DuckDuckGo’s Email Protection is different than Apple’s offerings because it’s cross-platform, meaning you have a unified experience with disposable email addresses on mobile, desktop, iPhone, or Android. But it also differs in how the software zags on trackers. Apple loads trackers on its own servers, which send erroneous information back to the trackers’ servers. DuckDuckGo just removes them from the email before they are ever loaded. This difference to most users is negligible, but it is indeed a difference.

Setting up the tool is straightforward. Users sign up through DuckDuckGo’s mobile app, by going to the Settings page and tapping on Email Protection. They can then join the waitlist, which DuckDuckGo says is novel because it doesn’t collect an email address — it stores a timestamp in the app which is used to designate the person’s order in line.

DuckDuckGo estimates the wait will be a couple of weeks, after which users will get a notification to set up the feature. The setup process includes a bit of light reading about the privacy features and choosing a new “Duck.com” email address. One feature that the process stresses is that DuckDuckGo doesn’t see or save your email; the tracker removal is done in its servers’ memory (or RAM) and not ever written to a disk or hard drive. DuckDuckGo also built the forwarding software from scratch, so it didn’t have to rely on a third-party also processing the emails before they hit your inbox.

The Email Protection feature also integrates with the DuckDuckGo mobile browser and desktop browser extension, giving people the option to fill in their “@duck.com” address or generate a disposable address that forwards email to their inbox. The mobile and desktop browser extensions are linked by opening a link on the Email Protection welcome email in your desktop browser.

From then on, when email is received, scanned, cleaned of trackers, and forwarded to your email, DuckDuckGo inserts a small bar at the top of the email notifying of any trackers removed. Clicking on that bar allows a user to get more information on the trackers blocked or deactivate a disposable address that has been compromised.

Crucially, while a user can respond to an email they receive on a “@duck.com” address, it can’t be used to initially send an email, reducing the tool’s usefulness for laundering harassment.

The feature is launching in a beta test, and DuckDuckGo is still exploring how it will function in the real world. The company is also working on a privacy-focused desktop browser, which it expects to finish by the end of 2021, part of a broader push to offer privacy-focused alternatives for every major activity online.

“Wherever you go online, we want to protect you,” Weinberg said.

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