Spy pixels in e-mails have become endemic

By Leo Kelion for BBC

The use of “invisible” tracking tech in e-mails 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.

Hey’s co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson says they amount to a “grotesque invasion of privacy”.

Without special software, it is not easy to spot which emails contain a tracking pixel.
And other experts have also questioned whether companies are being as transparent as required under law about their use.

Invisible beacons
Tracking pixels are typically a .GIF or .PNG file that is as small as 1×1 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.

British Airways, TalkTalk, Vodafone, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, HSBC, Marks & Spencer, Asos and Unilever are among UK brands Hey detected to be using them.

But their use was much more widespread despite many members of the public being unaware of it, said Hansson.

“It’s not like there’s a flag saying ‘this email includes a spy pixel’ in most email software,” he added.

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