Reading Emails on Your Apple Watch Bypasses Privacy Protections on iOS 15

Apple Watch Mail App Credit: Alexey Boldin / Shutterstock
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If you’re hoping to take full advantage of the new Mail Privacy Protection feature in iOS 15, you’ll need to be careful about reading email messages on your Apple Watch.

One of several new privacy features in iOS 15, Mail Privacy Protection, helps mask your identity by hiding your actual IP address from email trackers. The feature is built into the Mail app on your iPhone and iPad, but it appears that this isn’t the case when it comes to the watchOS Mail app on the Apple Watch.

A pair of security researchers in Canada and Germany recently discovered that email messages that appear on the Apple Watch don’t benefit from Mail Privacy Protection, even if this feature is enabled on your paired iPhone.

To make matters worse, the duo notes that this can happen even if you’re not actually reading email messages on your Apple Watch. That’s because the notification previews also potentially expose your IP address to trackers, even if Mail Privacy Protection is enabled on your iPhone.

How Mail Privacy Protection Works

Mail Privacy Protection isn’t a novel idea — Gmail has been doing it since 2013 — but it is new to Apple’s Mail app on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. It’s designed to thwart attempts by email marketers, which use unique embedded images to track who actually opens their emails and how often.

Most marketing emails include numerous images, but almost none of these are contained in the email. Instead, the email is basically like a web page with links to download the images from a web server. By including a unique image for each recipient, marketers can find out who has opened a message and where it’s been opened from.

While there’s not much you can do to prevent a marketer from knowing that you’ve opened their message, since the unique tracking code is already associated with your email address, Mail Privacy Protection obscures your IP address so that they won’t be able to associate that with your location or any other web browsing activity.

For example, without Mail Privacy Protection, advertisers can associate your IP address with your actual identity, since of course, they already have your email address. This allows them to track your other browsing activity. So when the same IP address is used to read other email messages or visit other websites, they know who it belongs to.

Mail Privacy Protection avoids this by opening any image links in an email through a series of intermediary proxy servers. Instead of getting your real IP address, trackers see only a generic address belonging to a mammoth cloud services provider, such as Cloudflare — an IP address that thousands of others will also use.

The Problem

Unfortunately, it appears that the new Mail Privacy Protection feature doesn’t apply when you’re using your Apple Watch.

To be fair, Apple has never actually said that Mail Privacy Protection works on the Apple Watch. In fact, it doesn’t say much about privacy features on its wearable at all, but now we have proof.

We’ve confirmed Mysk’s findings with our own independent tests. This was done simply by sending an email message with an embedded image from our own server and checking the logs to confirm which IP address was used to view the image. The problem persists in the latest watchOS 8.3 beta as well.

In fact, our tests show that Apple hasn’t done much at all to make the watchOS Mail app more private. For example, the iOS 15 Mail app no longer identifies itself at all when requesting images from a web server — even when Mail Privacy Protection is switched off. Instead, it simply appears as a generic browser.

This means that marketers don’t even get to know that you’re using an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to read their messages. However, they will still know if you’re using an Apple Watch, as that identifies itself.

What This Means for You

This will only be a problem if you use the Mail app on your Apple Watch and have full notifications enabled for messages where you’re concerned about your privacy.

We don’t imagine this is a common scenario for most folks, as we don’t think too many people want to see alerts on their wrist for every email newsletter they receive.

Mail Privacy Protection applies on a per-message basis, and it’s only bypassed for a given message when you either:

  1. Go into the Mail app on watchOS and open that specific email message.
  2. Receive a notification for that specific email message on your Apple Watch.

In other words, simply having some notifications enabled will not cause your real IP address to be logged for every message you receive — only those messages that you actually receive notifications for.

This means that if you have your Apple Watch set to alert you only for certain senders, such as those on your “VIP” list, you probably don’t need to worry too much. Friends, family members, and co-workers aren’t likely sending you email trackers. Even if they forward a newsletter or marketing email to you, the tracking inside is based on their email address and not yours, so if anything, it will serve to confuse email marketers.

It’s also worth noting that you don’t need to worry about Mail Privacy Protection too much when you’re using your iPhone and Apple Watch on a cellular network. Unlike your home IP address, which is assigned to your router and can remain the same for months or even years, cellular IP addresses get reused by enough different people to make them basically useless to advertisers.

If you’re concerned about this, however, you can easily adjust your notifications or disable Mail entirely on your Apple Watch from the Watch app on your iPhone:

  1. On your iPhone, open the Watch app.
  2. Scroll down and tap Mail to open the Mail app settings.
  3. Tap Custom to configure alerts and account settings separately from your iPhone settings.
  4. Tap Notifications Off if you want to disable notifications entirely.
  5. Alternatively, you can adjust your settings in the section below to only receive notifications from contacts you’ve marked as VIPs or messages that arrive in mailboxes that you’ve marked as Favorites in the iPhone Mail app.

Ultimately, we don’t think there’s much to worry about here. It’s unclear when or if Apple plans to fix this in watchOS 8. Still, this doesn’t really affect anybody who isn’t getting notified of every new email on their Apple Watch or actively reading new messages in the watchOS Mail app.

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