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Email management app Superhuman made headlines last week for raising new venture capital, but now the by-invitation-only service has come under fire for its privacy practices around the use of pixel tracking.

The big picture: Pixel tracking allows senders to track emails by forcing a recipient to download a tiny, invisible graphic file when they open the message, explains Axios’ Joe Uchill. Once the image file is downloaded, the sender knows their email was opened — and can also harvest a slew of additional information about the reader. 

  • In the case of Superhuman, which aims to streamline inbox work for heavy email users, that includes location data about each time a recipient opened a message. (Update: Superhuman has removed location data following the controversy. More below.)
  • As Mike Davidson, former VP of design for Twitter, put it in a widely read critique, "Superhuman teaches its user to surveil by default."

The controversy centers on a persistent question that faces technology users: Are you okay with trading some (or all) of your privacy in exchange for services that are more convenient, better personalized, and less expensive? 

  • Per an IBM survey, 71% of people said it’s worth giving up privacy for the benefits of tech. And while 81% said they’re concerned about how their data is used, only 45% have actually changed settings in an app, and a mere 16% have stopped using a tool because of data misuse. 

Yes, but: In the case of Superhuman and email pixel tracking, the privacy equation is different. 

  • Pixel tracking is common in some apps, but it's usually a feature that users have to turn on.
  • With Superhuman, users are collecting information by default on the people to whom they're sending email messages, without alerting or warning those people.

Between the lines: Email has evolved its own cultural expectations, and Superhuman looks like it's pushing beyond some people's comfort zone.

  • Subscribers to email content and newsletters (even from Axios), particularly those containing ads, may be aware that the sender is tracking them for business purposes.
  • Many understand that sales inquiries are carefully monitored, too — pixel tracking is a basic feature in virtually all email tools for sales and marketing. 
  • But what about messages from friends, family, acquaintances, former romantic partners? Arguably, that’s where the expectation is different.
  • “Read receipt” functions in apps like iMessage are turned off by default, and it’s up to the recipient to decide whether to enable them.
  • Yes, email recipients can disable image downloading, which foils pixel tracking, but that also strips much of the look and feel of modern email use.

The bottom line: If Superhuman's aggressive push to spread pixel-tracking into new spheres doesn't spark significant public outcry, it could establish a new norm.

Go deeper: How email open tracking quietly took over the web (Wired)

Update: Following the controversy, Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra announced that the company was immediately removing location tracking (and deleting the data), turning off the email tracking feature by default, and will build a feature to disable remote images.

Go deeper

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema: Abolishing filibuster would weaken "democracy's guardrails"

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema at the U.S. Capitol building earlier this month. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) defended her opposition to abolishing the 60-vote legislative filibuster in a Washington Post op-ed published Monday night, saying to do so would weaken "democracy's guardrails."

Why it matters: There have been growing calls from Democrats, particularly progressives, to overhaul the rules as the Senate prepares to vote Tuesday on Democrats' massive voting rights package. But Sinema writes in her op-ed that if this were to happen "we will lose much more than we gain."

Court blocks California assault weapons ban repeal

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

A federal appeals court on Monday blocked a judge's ruling that overturned California's 30-year assault weapons ban.

Driving the news: U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez ruled earlier this month that the ban was unconstitutional and likened the AR-15 to a Swiss Army knife, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has now granted a stay, pending appeal.

Trump Organization sues New York City for canceling contracts

Former President Trump addressing the NCGOP state convention in Greenville, North Carolina, earlier this month. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

The Trump Organization filed a lawsuit against New York City Monday, alleging that the termination of its Bronx golf course contract following the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot was politically motivated.

Why it matters: The estimated cost of the decision by NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio to end all contracts between the city and former President Trump's family business in response to the insurrection is $17 million a year in revenue.