The use of “invisible” tracking technology in emails is now endemic, according to a messaging service that analyzed its traffic
According to Hey’s analysis, two-thirds of the emails sent to their users’ personal accounts contained a “spy pixel”, even after they were excluded as spam.
Its creators say that many major brands use pixel email, with the exception of “big tech firms.”
Proponents of these tracking tools say they are a widely used marketing tactic.
And several of the companies involved indicate that the use of this technology is mentioned within their broader privacy policies.
Emails that include tracking pixels can be used to record:
if an email was opened and when was it
how many times was it opened
what device or devices were involved
the approximate physical location of the user, based on their internet protocol (IP) address, in some cases it is possible to see which street the user is on
The information can then be used to determine the impact of a specific email campaign, as well as to feed into customer profiles with more detail.
David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of Hey, says they amount to a “grotesque invasion of privacy.”
Other experts have also questioned whether companies are being as transparent as the law requires about their use.
Tracking pixels are typically a .GIF or .PNG file that is as small as 1×1 pixels, inserted into the header, footer, or body of an email.
Since they often display the color of the content below, they can be impossible to detect 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 opening an email in which they are contained.
British Airways, TalkTalk, Vodafone, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, HSBC, Marks & Spencer, Asos and Unilever are some of the British companies that Hey detected as users of this technology.
But its use was much more widespread even though many members of the public were unaware of it, Hansson notes.
“It’s not like there’s a banner saying ‘this email includes a spy pixel’ in most email programs,” he adds.
Hey offers this option, but users must pay an annual subscription.
Alternatively, users can install free plug-ins in other email programs to remove many tracking pixels. Other options are to simply configure the software to block all images by default or view emails as plain text.