Emails with tracking pixels have become “rampant”

Emails with tracking pixels have become "rampant"

While there are so many ways we are having exciting times in the tech world, it’s not all good. We seem to be dealing with privacy issues from all sides. The latest is tracking pixels which are secretly embedded in our emails.

What are Tracking Pixels?

Tracking pixels are also sometimes referred to as “web beacons”, and rightly so, or “web beacons.” These are tiny image files, such as .PNG and GIF, that are embedded in emails.

Gmail email tracking pixels

These pixel tags will appear clear or white, or any other color they need so you won’t notice them. They are often only 1 × 1 pixels.

How do tracking pixels work?

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

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

Email tracking pixel phoneEmail tracking pixel phone

This is not unlike the pixels used on websites to track visitors. While a lot of people aren’t familiar with tracking pixels, they’re nothing new. They can be used by marketers to measure engagement, campaign success, or send more targeted follow-ups or messages if the email has not been answered.

Hey co-founder David Heinemeier sees web beacons 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 every day. If you apply this ratio to all the other larger email services, such as Gmail and Outlook, it seems the practice is “rampant”.

GDPR in Europe requires organizations to notify recipients of tracking pixels of emails. But the level of transparency is not clear, as consent is not necessarily required. It is not known whether signing up to receive emails and read a privacy notice is sufficient as a notification.

Send email tracking pixelsSend email tracking pixels

If you are embarrassed by this practice of tracking hidden pixels in your emails, it is quite easy to unsubscribe. 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 any changes right away? Tell us in the comments below. Read on to discover the 12 most secure email services for better privacy.

Laura Tucker
Laura Tucker

Laura has spent nearly 20 years writing news, reviews and opinion pieces, including more than 10 as an editor. She has been using Apple products exclusively for three decades. In addition to writing and editing at MTE, she also runs the site’s sponsored editing program.

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