Text-only email: boring but safe

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when formatted email first became widely-used, displaying formatted email was dangerous, because vulnerabilities in Windows allowed specially-crafted email to execute code on the recipient’s machine. Merely previewing formatted email was risky.

Windows updates and email client changes reduced the effectiveness of malware embedded in the content of email, although clickable links and attachments were still — and continue to be — dangerous.

These days, the dangers of enabling formatted text and images in email are mostly about privacy. A significant portion of all email — especially email sent through mass messaging services like Mailchimp — contains tiny images that, when viewed in an email client, tell the sender when you viewed it. This information is used by the sender to determine the effectiveness of their email campaign. It’s not dangerous, but it is creepy. Of course, not all embedded images are there for marketing reasons; some have more nefarious purposes.

The dangers of email can be almost eliminated by configuring your client software to display email in plain text (without any formatting), and without images. Better still, for those concerned about having their actions tracked online, using text-only email prevents any image-based tracking that would otherwise occur when you open your email.

Most desktop email client software has options that force all email to be viewed in a plain text format. Web-based clients are less likely to offer this option, but some, including GMail, can at least be configured not to display images.

I have always recommended the use of text-only email, and I follow my own advice. Email is still the easiest way for malicious persons to induce unwary users into taking actions that should be avoided. As long as that’s true, the only truly safe way to use email is to disable formatting and images. This also makes email less engaging, but I’m willing to forego fancy-looking email for safety and privacy.