17 February 2021

"Spy pixels" in emails

From the BBC:
The use of "invisible" tracking tech in emails is now "endemic", according to a messaging service that analysed its traffic at the BBC's request.

Hey's review indicated that two-thirds of emails sent to its users' personal accounts contained a "spy pixel", even after excluding for spam. Its makers said that many of the largest brands used email pixels, with the exception of the "big tech" firms.

Defenders of the trackers say they are a commonplace marketing tactic. And several of the companies involved noted their use of such tech was mentioned within their wider privacy policies.

Emails pixels can be used to log:
- if and when an email is opened
- how many times it is opened
- what device or devices are involved
- the user's rough physical location, deduced from their internet protocol (IP) address - in some cases making it possible to see the street the recipient is on

This information can then be used to determine the impact of a specific email campaign, as well as to feed into more detailed customer profiles.
Tracking pixels are typically a .GIF or .PNG file that is as small as 1x1 pixels, which is inserted into the header, footer or body of an email.

Since they often show the colour of the content below, they can be impossible to spot with the naked eye even if you know where to look.

Recipients do not need to click on a link or do anything to activate them beyond open an email they are embedded in.

Addendum:  an anonymous reader offered this relevant link re blocking these spy pixels.


  1. Not an exhaustive list by any means, but: https://www.fastcompany.com/90325898/how-to-stop-email-trackers-pixels

  2. Just read all of your email in plain text. Problem solved. If you need to view the images you can then choose to view it in HTML once you have verified who it is from.

  3. This is my biggest issue with digital marketing. I want marketers to be transparent about their tactics and give us the option to opt out. Instead, they know that their practices are wildly objectionable, so they conceal them with obtuse, broad language and shady, spy-like techniques, and they sell our information to dozens of companies without disclosure and without our consent. Until they adopt legitimately transparent policies and allow complete opt outs, I'll continue to block as much ad and tracker activity as possible.

  4. Some mail appliacations such as iphones and also thunderbird on Linux can be set to not load remote images in e-mails by default. You can also set your e-mail not to display HTML but just plain text but this isn't much fun.

  5. Use plain text mode, block images by default, and mark-as-spam whenever you get unwanted email.


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