Be careful, two-thirds of the emails you receive spy on you!

As a study reveals, two out of three emails contain pixel tags, or cookies that seek to identify your habits. How do they work and how can you protect yourself from them?

Credit: Stephen Phillips via Unsplash

The malwares and other scams have multiplied dangerously since the arrival of Covid-19, but other practices that may prove to be a little too lax for the integrity of your privacy are also spreading. This is the case of pixel spies, the equivalent of cookies on the web, but for e-mails. According to a study commissioned by the BBC and carried out by the company behind the application « Hey », these small trackers would multiply dangerously lately, and would today be contained in two thirds of emails that you receive. This technique is not particularly new: the spy pixel is in the form of a single pixel image, which slips into an email. When a user opens an email that contains one, the cookie is activated and begins to scrutinize your habits.

According to David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of « Hey », these spy pixels would hide on average in 20 to 50 emails received by an average user. These would be mainly used by companies or e-commerce sites, including some big names such as HSBC, Mark & ​​Spencer, British Arways, etc. They are mainly found in communication messages for promotions, in particular. This is not illegal, but those who use this type of trackers must inform the user, as stipulated by the RGPD or the PECR (Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations).

How to protect yourself from web bugs?

Now that you are aware of this practice, how to prevent it? If you are using Gmail, there is a silly way to prevent these pixel tags from spying on you. In order to protect you from malwares, Google messaging automatically blocks images in emails considered to be spam. However, not all are considered this way, and therefore manage to slip into your inbox. The technique then consists of activating the option “Ask for confirmation before displaying external images”, located in the tab “General” Gmail settings. This way, tracking pixels will be blocked, but so will any other images you may receive by email. An equivalent option is also found on Apple’s Mail application, on macOS or iOS devices, or on Microsoft’s Outlook.


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