Tracking pixels in emails, a new privacy concern

Surely all of you have seen the double blue check in an email, something possible thanks to applications such as mailtrack. This type of signal is useful for those who work with e-commerce, digital marketing, web analytics and much more, but now the sensitive issue of privacy is beginning to be addressed.

These invisible pixels are used to track email activity, they are tiny, invisible image files, such as PNG and .GIF, that are embedded in the body of email content. They blend into the content, or are transparent, so they are not seen by the recipient (they are often as small as 1 × 1 pixels).

The problem is that the recipient of an email does not need to interact directly with the pixel in any way so that certain activities can be tracked, in fact the tracking pixel is downloaded automatically, without asking permission first.

Tracking pixels have been around for a long time, needed to estimate the success of marketing campaigns, but according to Hey co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson, they also represent a “grotesque invasion of privacy.”

Hansson told the BBC that, on average, the company processes one million emails and more than 600,000 pixel tracking attempts are blocked every day. If you raise these levels to the millions and millions of emails processed by services like Gmail or Outlook, the suggestion that pixel tracker use is “endemic” may be realistic.

In Europe, the GDPR requires organizations to inform recipients about the use of such pixels. However, the subject has not been covered in depth and it is assumed that the end user gives consent automatically when he registers with an email service and is asked to read the corresponding privacy notice.

Now the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has put the papers back on the table and is planning to stop using the pixel in their own emails.

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Lenny Li

I started to play with tech since middle school. Smart phones, laptops and gadgets are all about my life. Besides, I am also a big fan of Star War. May the force be with you!

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