No, if you forward an email, the sender cannot see that you did so. This is because of how email works. The recipient may see that you forwarded it, however, and might inform the original sender.
I’m Aaron and I love technology. I use email everyday, as do most people, but I’ve also administered and secured email systems previously.
Let’s dive into a discussion about how email works, why that means the original sender can’t tell whether or not you’ve forwarded it, and some questions you may have about email.
Table of Contents
- Key Takeaways
- How Does Email Work?
- So Why Can’t a Sender See if an Email is Forwarded?
- How does a Sender See if an Email is Forwarded?
- Email works very similarly to sending a letter.
- As a result of the way email developed, there’s little bidirectional communication between email servers.
- This lack of bidirectional communication prevents a sender from seeing if their email was forwarded.
- They may know their email was forwarded if someone tells them.
How Does Email Work?
Email was designed to emulate writing a letter as much as possible. While that was in part driven by a desire to make it approachable to people who had never used the internet before, it was also due to some technical limitations of the early internet.
Point to point communication in the early days of the internet was slow. Connectivity was slow. Imagine a time when transmitting 14 kilobits a second under perfect conditions was blazing fast!
For reference, when you text a 30 second high-definition video, that’s typically 130 megabytes, compressed. That’s 1,040,000 kilobits! Transmitting that in the early 1990s under totally perfect conditions would have taken close to 21 hours!
Even though text isn’t as large or complex to store as a video, large amounts of text being transmitted in both directions could be time consuming. Taking tens of minutes to have a simple conversation is taxing. Writing emails where you expect a delay isn’t.
So in a world where written correspondence happened via letters, email was billed as a faster mode of communication. But it retained the look, feel, and operation of a letter.
How? To send an email or letter, you need to specify a recipient and their address and complex technical or physical routing, respectively, will make sure your email gets to your recipient.
Once you send an email it behaves very analogously to a letter. You lose control over the message and the ability to reroute it back to you. You also don’t know what happens with the letter unless you get a response, with one exception.
That exception is address resolution. Address resolution is when your email server and the recipient’s email server confirm the validity of the recipient address. If the address is valid, the email is sent without fanfare. If the address is invalid, then you receive an undeliverable notice. Again, very similar to a returned letter.
Here’s a straightforward seven-minute YouTube video that dives more into how email routing works.
So Why Can’t a Sender See if an Email is Forwarded?
A sender can’t see if an email is forwarded because of how email servers and routing works. Once an address is resolved, the email leaves the sender’s control. There’s no more back-and-forth communication between the sender’s server and the recipient’s server.
Without that back-and-forth communication, there’s no way for updates about an email to be provided.
You may be asking yourself: why don’t we have that back-and-forth communication? Why can’t we get updates about our emails?
Email infrastructure is substantial addressing the current loads of bidirectional communication. They need to be because emails aren’t just text nowadays. Emails have html formatting, embedded images and videos, attachments, and other content.
Instead of modifying email to meet new uses it wasn’t originally designed for, developers have created new methods of communication: instant messaging, texting, file sharing, and other modalities of communication.
Not all of them are perfectly traceable, or even attempt to achieve every objective of all communication modalities. Including all that functionality in one solution would make the solution very complicated and potentially unmanageable for end-users and service providers alike.
How does a Sender See if an Email is Forwarded?
A Sender can see if an email is forwarded in a couple of ways:
- You include the sender on the distribution list of the forwarded email.
- Someone who receives the email downstream notifies the sender.
Unless the sender is somehow notified, they will not know that the email has been forwarded.
Here are some other questions you might be curious about forwarding an email.
If I Forward an Email Can the Recipient See the Whole Thread?
Yes, but only if you include it. Typically, email clients allow you to preview and edit prior parts of the email thread. If you don’t remove the parts of the thread that you don’t want your recipient to see, then they will be able to see those parts of the thread.
If I Forward an Email Can the CC See It?
No. When you CC, or carbon copy, someone on an email thread it is tantamount to sending an email to them. Email servers process that distribution the same way. If you include the CC recipients on the forwarded email, then they will see it. If not, then they won’t.
What Happens when you Forward an Email?
When you forward an email, the contents of the email are copied into a new email. You may then edit that email and specify new recipients of that email.
What Happens if You Forward an Email and then Reply to the Original Email?
If you forward an email and then reply to the original email, you will be sending two separate emails, potentially to two sets of recipients. How your email application tracks those emails may look different from application to application.
If you forward an email, the original sender cannot see it. This is because of the way email works. Your sender may know that an email is forwarded if they are notified of the forwarding.
Do you have any stories from the early days of commercially available internet services? I’d love to hear them. Share them below!