Emails with Tracking Pixels Have Become “Endemic”

Email Tracking Pixels Featured

While there are so many ways we’re living through exciting times in the world of technology, it’s not all good. It seems we’re dealing with privacy concerns from every direction. The latest is tracking pixels that are secretly embedded in our emails.

What Are Tracking Pixels?

Tracking pixels are also sometimes called “spy pixels,” and rightfully so, or “web beacons.” These are tiny image files, such as .PNGs and GIFs, that are embedded in emails.

Email Tracking Pixels Gmail

These spy pixels will appear clear or white, or whatever other color they need to be for you not to notice them. They are often only 1×1 pixels.

How Do Tracking Pixels Work?

Following up on a request from the BBC, the Hey messaging service analyzed its traffic and made an interesting discovery. Around two-thirds of emails sent to the private email accounts of its users contained tracking pixels.

The email account holders don’t even need to interact with these pixels for them to track their activities. The pixel is automatically downloaded when the email is opened. This sends a signal to a marketer’s server that the email has been opened. The pixels could also record the number of times the email is opened, the IP address being used, and the usage of the device.

Email Tracking Pixels Phone

This is not unlike pixels that are used on websites to track visitors. While many people don’t know about tracking pixels, they’re not new. They can be used by marketers to measure engagement, how successful a campaign is, or send follow-ups or more targeted messages if the email has not received a response.

Hey co-founder David Heinemeier sees spy pixels as a “grotesque invasion of privacy.” On average, he says his company processes a million emails, and more than 600,000 tracking pixel attempts are blocked each day. If you apply that ratio to all the other larger email services, such as Gmail and Outlook, it seems the practice is “endemic.”

The GDPR in Europe forces organizations to inform email recipients of the tracking pixels. But the level of transparency is unclear, as consent isn’t necessarily required. It’s unknown whether signing up to receive emails and reading a privacy notice suffice as notification.

Email Tracking Pixels Send

If you are bothered by this practice of tracking pixels being hidden in your emails, it’s easy enough to opt out. Either don’t allow automatic image downloads or use email and browser add-ons to block tracking pixels.

Does this practice of burying tracking pixels bother you? Are you going to make changes right away? Tell us in the comments below. Read on to learn of the 12 most secure email services for better privacy.

Laura Tucker
Laura Tucker

Laura has spent nearly 20 years writing news, reviews, and op-eds, with more than 10 of those years as an editor as well. She has exclusively used Apple products for the past three decades. In addition to writing and editing at MTE, she also runs the site's sponsored review program.

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