Preventing spam and tracking
Nowadays, it seems like everyone on the web wants your email. When you give your email address to a site in order to log in or just get some info, many companies will take that as a free pass to do anything from relentlessly spamming you with newsletters to selling your email address to advertisers, who will in turn track you relentlessly.
Thankfully, there are also people building tools that can make things harder for the companies trying to get your email address.
There are two ways you can keep your real email address more private in different situations: relay services and temporary inboxes. By the time we’re done, you’ll hopefully be able to fill in fields asking for your email without worrying about who’s getting your “real” digital address.
Email relay services
One way to keep your email address private and keep spam out of your inbox is by using an email relay service. The basic concept behind these services is that they generate a “virtual” email address you can give to apps and websites; any emails sent to that address will automatically get forwarded to your real inbox.
Many of these services will let you create and manage multiple aliases — for example, you could have one alias for all your newsletters, and another that you give out to shopping sites. With services that allow unlimited aliases, there’s nothing to stop you from creating a new one every time you give your email to a company, if you really want to make it difficult to aggregate your email presence.
This story is part of Keep it Locked: how to protect yourself online.
Another common feature these services provide is letting you turn off email forwarding, so that you won’t get any spam or other email from that site. Using our previous example, you could turn off forwarding when you use your shopping sites alias, keeping any tempting sales out of your inbox.
There’s no shortage of these relay services available, but we’ve rounded up a sampling of them that are either built into tools you may already have available, or that are well-regarded platform agnostics.
Apple’s Hide My Email / Sign In With Apple
If you use Apple devices, the company includes an email relay service called Hide My Email with its paid iCloud Plus plans. If you have iCloud Plus and are using an Apple device, you should see a “Hide My Email” option pop up when you select the email field on a website’s signup page. Selecting the option will auto-generate a private email address for you, which will then be forwarded to the email address you use for your Apple account.
You can also create a private email address outside of the signup process if you want to use it on a signup form for, say, a game console or an app on Windows.
To do so using your iPhone or iPad:
- Go to Settings and tap your name
- Go to iCloud > Hide My Email > Create New Address.
On a Mac:
- Go to System Preferences > Apple ID
- Select iCloud from the sidebar
- Click Options next to Hide My Email
You can add a label and notes to help you remember what the address is for, and you can manage your existing email aliases from the Hide My Email screen.
While Hide My Email is only available via the paid iCloud Plus plan, you can also use a form of it for free with Apple’s Sign In with Apple service. On supported sites, you’ll see a Sign In with Apple button, which lets you use your Apple ID to set up and log into accounts. If you use Sign In, Apple also lets you hide your email address from the actual site.
To take advantage of this, when you’re setting up your account using Apple’s UI (it will pop up after hitting the “Continue with Apple” button that supported sites use), select the Hide My Email option instead of the Share My Email option. This will more or less work the same way as the paid service — Apple will give the website a randomly generated email address, and forward any email sent to it to the address associated with your Apple ID. Since you’ll be logging in using the Continue With Apple button, you won’t have to keep track of the private email address Apple generates.
You can manage the email settings for apps and services you use with Sign In with Apple from either a mobile device or a desktop.
To do so using iOS:
- Go to Settings and tap your name.
- Go to Password and Security > Apps Using Apple ID. (If you have iCloud Plus, go instead to iCloud > Hide My Email.)
- To stop receiving emails from a service, tap its name, then turn off the Forward To toggle.
If you have iCloud Plus, this process will look slightly different. On iOS:
- Go to Settings and tap your name.
- Go to iCloud > Hide My Email.
- To stop receiving emails from a service, tap the service’s name and turn off the Forward To toggle.
On a Mac, the process is the same whether or not you pay for iCloud Plus.
- Go to System Preferences > Apple ID.
- Select Password and Security from the sidebar.
- Click the Edit button next to Apps Using Apple ID, and select the app you want to change settings on from the sidebar.
- If you’re using email forwarding, there will be a button labeled “Turn Off” in the Forward To section.
You can also manage your email settings on the web by going to appleid.apple.com, clicking Sign In with Apple, selecting the app you want to manage, and clicking the Manage Settings button.
Firefox Relay is an alias service made by Mozilla, the same company behind the popular web browser. With the Firefox Relay extension installed in your Firefox browser, you get a button that’ll show up in email fields, letting you automatically generate an alias. The extension also provides a quick link to a settings page you can use to manage your aliases: turning them off or on, renaming them, or deleting them outright. You can also use the settings page to generate a new alias a la carte, and can access the page to view and manage your aliases on other browsers if you want.
One of the obvious advantages (assuming you’re a Firefox user) of Relay is that it’s tied to your Firefox account — that way, you can sign in once when you’re setting up a new device and get all your bookmarks, preferences, VPN service, and email relay controls.
Relay’s free tier only allows five aliases
Unfortunately, its free tier is very limited — you can only have up to five aliases, so you’d very likely be using each alias as a category (shopping, social, etc) rather than assigning individual sites their own alias. You also can’t reply to the emails the service forwards to you using the free tier.
Mozilla has recently introduced a 99-cent-per-month premium tier, which lets you create as many aliases as you want, and reply to forwarded emails that are less than three months old.
You can read Firefox’s FAQ about the service here. While Relay is not as feature-rich as the next service we’ll cover, it is by far one of the simplest options (if you’re a Firefox user, of course). Installing the extension is as simple as going to its page on the Firefox add-on store and clicking install.
AnonAddy is a web-based forwarding service that you can use with any device or browser. The free tier lets you create unlimited aliases and manage them however you need — you can deactivate an alias associated with any sites whose emails’ unsubscribe button doesn’t seem to do its job (or doesn’t exist at all), and enjoy not being bombarded.
A standout feature of AnonAddy is that you can have emails for a specific alias forward to multiple addresses (up to two using the free tier). This could be useful if, for example, you wanted to create a “bills” alias that you use for subscription services, and whose emails get sent to both you and a partner.
The free version of AnonAddy probably isn’t the best option if you expect to be getting a lot of media-heavy emails sent to your aliases — it has a 10MB a month limit, which is generous for text but could be eaten up quickly by pictures.
AnonAddy has browser extensions for Firefox and Chrome-based browsers like Edge, Brave, and obviously Chrome (though sadly, it doesn’t offer one for Safari).
If you’ve got a lot of technical skill, you can also self-host AnonAddy on your own server. If you want to use an email aliasing system, but don’t want your emails being handled by someone else (or don’t want to pay a $1 per month fee for a 50MB bandwidth cap, or a $3 per month fee for unlimited data), the fact that you can roll your own AnonAddy instance makes it worth a look.
SimpleLogin is another project similar to AnonAddy, though there are different tradeoffs; for example, you get unlimited bandwidth with the free tier, but can only have up to 15 aliases. While it doesn’t have an easy way to replicate the multi-delivery setting of AnonAddy, it’s got tons of settings you can change, so if you’ve got very particular needs it may be the way to go. You can also self-host it, if you’re technically able.
SimpleLogin also has iOS and Android apps for managing your aliases.
DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search provider, also has its own email relay service that you can set up using its mobile app. In addition to giving you an adorable “@duck.com” email address to use as an alias, the company also promises that its service will strip out trackers embedded in any emails it’s forwarding you.
We have a separate guide on how to use the service, but before you click over to it there are a few caveats to note. Email Protection is still in beta, so you might not want to use it for absolutely critical emails just yet. It’s also got a waitlist to join (DuckDuckGo says the wait time is “less than a month”), so it may not be the best option if you’re looking to start on this journey right away.
If you subscribe to both 1Password and Fastmail, you can use your password manager to easily create new aliases using Fastmail’s built-in Masked Email feature. To start, go to Fastmail’s website and log in to your account. Then go to Settings and select Masked Email from the Account section in the sidebar. If you don’t use 1Password, you can use this screen to set up an alias (and manage existing ones) by clicking the New Masked Email Address button.
To set up 1Password integration, click the Connect to 1Password button in Fastmail, and log into your account. You’ll then get prompts from both 1Password and Fastmail, asking you to confirm that you want your accounts connected, and you may need to enter your 1Password password one last time. Then your accounts will be linked, and the 1Password browser extension should start letting you create masked emails when you’re on a site’s signup page — unless you use Safari, but we’ll touch on that in a moment.
Now, clicking the Create Masked Email button in your browser’s iPassword extension will generate an alias for you. You can then click the “Fill Email” button to plug it into the signup form you’re filling out. Of course, 1Password will offer to save the login to your password manager, and generate a random password for your new account as well.
Unfortunately, this experience is a bit murky for Safari users. The 1Password app in the App Store includes a Safari extension, but it’s different from the one you’ll find for other browsers like Firefox and Chrome. Currently, it doesn’t support the Masked Email feature.
You can, however, download the separate 1Password for Safari extension from the Mac App Store. After installing it, you’ll have to enable it by going to Safari > Preferences > Extensions and checking the box next to 1Password for Safari (and unchecking the box next to regular 1Password, or else they’ll fight). This method does have some serious drawbacks; 1Password for Safari doesn’t integrate with the current Mac desktop app, so you can’t unlock it with Touch ID. 1Password says this should be changing in the future, but for right now you may just want to go with another solution if you use Safari.
Use a temporary burner email
There are some times when you really only need to receive an email or two from a site — say, it wants to send you a confirmation code, or it stubbornly insists that you enter your email to get results instead of just showing them to you. In those cases, instead of spinning up an entire new alias, you could use a temporary email service like GuerrillaMail or TempMail. These services do what they say on the tin — provide you with a temporary email address that you can use to receive one or two messages, and then never think about again.
In my experience, some sites may try to keep you from using a temporary email address, saying that they’re invalid. Usually that’s not a great sign, but you can sometimes get around it by trying a different service — if the signup form blocks 10MinuteMail, you could try EmailOnDeck, or vice versa.
While these methods are helpful for new services, if you want to keep people who already have your email address from tracking you, you can check out our guide to blocking tracking pixels.
We’ve also written before about Gmail’s built-in alias-like system, where you can give companies your Gmail address with a plus sign and ID tacked onto the end; something like “MyEmailAddressfirstname.lastname@example.org.” The emails will still show up in your MyEmailAddress inbox, and it could make it more difficult for hackers that obtain one of your logins to guess others.
However, we wouldn’t recommend it if you’re concerned about privacy. While it could currently help prevent companies from automatically aggregating your footprint, you are still giving them your base email address — it would be trivial to have tracking systems filter out the plus symbol and extra info after it, if enough people start using this trick. Thankfully, plenty of the options above should help you get some email privacy.
All Rights Reserved for Mitchell Clark