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Tracker keeps tabs on e-mail readers

The DidTheyReadIt service promises to secretly tell members whether a message they sent was opened, for how long it was read and how often it was looked at.

A new service wants to clue you in on who's reading your e-mail and when, but it could be easily sandbagged.

Rampell Software's DidTheyReadIt service lets people put secret return receipts on their outgoing e-mail, reporting on when, how many times and for how long their messages are read. The service, set for official launch on Monday, can also track whether the message has been forwarded and where, geographically, it has been read.

However, the underlying technology of DidTheyReadIt is not novel, and at least two other companies, including Postel Services, already provide a similar service. They can track e-mail with the use of tiny image tags, or Web bugs, embedded in an e-mail message. Once the e-mail is opened, a command from the image language is sent back to the company's servers, reporting on and tracking the message.

Web bugs are commonly used to monitor advertising campaigns and e-mail promotions, and spammers have long used the tags to monitor e-mail usage without the recipient's knowledge. But the tracking technology has caused privacy concerns in the past.

As a result, AOL and Microsoft Outlook and others offer image blockers in Hypertext Markup Language-based e-mail that can block the Web bugs by default.

"Web bugs in e-mail is a dying technology," said Richard Smith, a well-known security and privacy consultant.

DidTheyReadIt could be sabotaged by the same fail-safe mechanisms.

However, Alastair Rampell, CEO of privately held Rampell Software, believes that the service will be useful for people conducting business through e-mail who may not know if their messages fall into spam traps.

"Because of spam, you can mistakenly identify e-mail (as spam) and delete it," Rampell said. "This is a feature a lot of people want to know."

Typically, a report contains the name of the recipient--Jenny Jones, for example--the e-mail subject line, when the message was sent and what time it was opened. Greater detail could show that Jenny read the e-mail three times, for a total of two minutes. The service costs $50 annually and is limited to 750 messages a month.

Microsoft's Outlook e-mail client also lets people receive a "return receipt" for outgoing messages but stops short of providing detail on when and how often the e-mail is read.