All those obnoxious marketing emails crowding out your inbox don’t just push a product. They also keep track of whether you opened the email, when you opened it, and where you were at the moment by embedding tracking software in the message. Just type “email tracking” in your search engine and watch all the software apps appear.
There are several methods of tracking emails. For example, one of the simplest is a redirect link. Let’s say you click on a link in a promotional email that leads to the page for a product you want to buy. The link is coded to be traceable; it will go to another server with a variety of data, such as which browser you are using or where you clicked the link before it takes you to the article.
But while it’s pretty easy to spot a redirect link (for starters, you can often see all the additional code added to the URL), there are other methods that aren’t as clear. The method we’re looking at here is pixel tracking.
How does it work? A single tracking pixel is embedded in the email, usually (but not always) hidden in an image or a link. When the email is opened, code within the pixel sends the information back to the company’s server.
Some attempts have been made to limit the amount of information that can be sent this way. For example, since 2014 Google provided all images through its own proxy servers, which could hide your location from at least some tracking applications. Extensions like Ugly Mail and PixelBlock are designed to block trackers on Chrome and Firefox. And there are alternative browsers that emphasize privacy, such as Brave and the Tor Browser.
There is also an easy step you can take to avoid most trackers: stop your email from loading images automatically as images hide most of these pixels. You cannot avoid it all of them of the trackers that can be hidden in your email this way, but you will be putting a lot of it off.
Disable automatic loading of images on a computer
- Click on the gear icon in the top right corner.
- Click on ‘View all settings’.
- On the ‘General’ tab (the first), scroll down to ‘Pictures’.
- Select ‘Ask before external images are displayed’.
- Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click ‘Save changes’.
Note that this also disables Gmail’s dynamic email feature, making email messages more interactive.
Disable automatic loading of images on a mobile device
- In the Gmail app, select the three line icon in the top left corner.
- Scroll down and select ‘Settings’.
- Select the email account you want to recover.
- Scroll down and select “Pictures”.
- Select “Ask before external images are displayed (also disables dynamic email).”