Should you be concerned about your privacy by spy pixels in emails?

Every image on the Internet is stored on a server. Afterwards, whilst you surf the Net, it’s automatically downloaded by your PC. Your PC’s image requests can let those servers track your activity across the web. In terms of email, those images allow senders to track when and if a recipient has opened their email by adding an itty-bitty image called a tracking pixel. 

The whole process is remarkably simple. When a recipient opens an email, the image is automatically downloaded; and, the image request subsequently notifies the server that the email has been opened.

Email marketers have been using tracking pixels since 1900-and-frozen-to-death. They help marketers measure engagement rates, evaluate email campaigns’ success; and, possibly, send more personalised follow-up messages. They are also considered best practice and commonplace marketing practice. Suddenly, the BBC asks HEY – a messaging service – to analyse its traffic and what do you know, roughly ⅔ of emails sent to its users’ private email accounts contain a ‘spy pixel’ and the co-founder of the company condemn them as an endemic privacy concern and a grotesque invasion of privacy”.

A bit of background

To shed some light, spy pixels (a.k.a tracking pixels) are tiny invisible images (PNG or GIFs) added to the email body to track open rates. Often, they are as small as 1×1 pixels making them invisible to the naked eye. 

These tracking pixels are used to determine the impact of email campaigns such as – 

  • if and when the message was opened
  • how many times it was opened
  • the device(s) involved
  • the recipients’ IP address.

Keep in mind similar pixels are also widely used on web domains to track visitors (Facebook, Google, Chat-bots etc). So, should you stop browsing the Internet for fear of your privacy violation?

Massive businesses like British Airways, TalkTalk, Vodafone, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, HSBC, Marks & Spencer, ASOS and Unilever are among the ones HEY detected to be using tracking pixels. Do you believe they are invading your privacy? Or, are they ensuring there’s a way for them to send more relevant and beneficial content to improve your experience?

The BBC asked two of the above companies about their use of tracking pixels and this is what they said – 

British Airways: “We take customer data extremely seriously, and use a cross-industry standard approach that allows us to understand how effective our customer communications are.

TalkTalk: “As is common across our industry and others, we track the performance of different types of communications to understand what our customers prefer. We do not share this data externally.”

The thing about tracking pixels is quite simple. If people have given you explicit consent to contact them via email and you’ve clearly stated in your Privacy Policy you may track their activity, you’ve done nothing wrong. On the contrary, you are working towards providing a better service and experience for your target audience.

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