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How to prevent emails from tracking you

Pixel trackers can be used to monitor an email – here’s how to stop them.

Image: cpacanada.ca

Typically, emails are stored on the email service’s server which is where you are accessing it from. However, emails allow links that direct you to third-party servers which are used to monitor you whenever you open your email.

This is different from read or return receipts that are inherent features of email services and notifies the sender whether an email has been read or received. Besides, in the case of read or return receipts, they are both relayed by the email service server and not a third-party server in the case of email tracking. 

Although email trackers use the usual web-tracking process that employs cookies and web beacons, one key difference here is your email address. This makes it a personal identifier and makes otherwise anonymous web tracking a privacy concern. 

It’s also why some might find a sender knowing how many times an email was opened as well as when and where you opened it invasive. There’s a potential risk of your email address leaking to third parties like data brokers and web trackers when your email is being tracked. The most common method of email tracking is by using a pixel tracker in emails sent to you.

What is a pixel tracker?

email logos for gmail and outlook
Image: KnowTechie

A pixel tracker is usually a 1×1 pixel image that tracks the activity of a user who loads it. Pixel trackers are usually impossible to spot wherever they are embedded because of their extremely small size and it doesn’t require the user’s permission to work.

It is used in websites, sales funnels, email tracking, ads, social media, and so on. It is a marketing tool that is often used to measure the conversion rate and user behavior when interacting with a website or email.

How does email tracking work?

Clients like Gmail, Outlook, Apple Mail, and others allow a subset of HTML-like image tags to be embedded in emails. When you open an email with a pixel tracker in it, your email client runs the HTML code used to embed the image.

email tracking pixel
Image: Freedom-to-Tinker

The HTML code links to a third-party server which requires your email to be sent as a parameter for the image to be retrieved from the server. There is also a cookie exchange and the third-party server is able to acquire information on you which includes your time, location (IP address), how many times the email is viewed, and even the type of device. This information is then passed on to the sender of the email.

The fact that tracking pixels are hidden and there’s no way a user can tell they’re being tracked without added tools like browser extensions say something about how intrusive it is. Besides, it also takes away your choice of deciding whether or not you want it. All you have to do is open the email and the tracking pixel is activated. 

There’s a greater concern still if you view your email in a browser because a tracking cookie is typically sent with the request as directed by the pixel tracker. This inadvertently creates a connection between the tracking cookie and your email address.

So when the browser sends the same cookie to another website on the same server, it results in email-based targeted ads. Moreso, it allows web trackers to link tracking profiles from before and after your cookies might have been cleared.

How to stop email tracking

A simple way to stop pixel trackers from working is by simply setting your email client not to download images automatically. By doing so, remote content like your pixel tracker will not load and it can’t track you.

How to stop tracking pixels on Gmail

how to stop pixel tracking in gmail
Screenshot: KnowTechie

If you are using Gmail, you can stop pixel tracking from the app or on desktop:

Gmail Web: Settings (the gear icon) → See all settings → General → Images Ask before displaying external images

Gmail App (Android): Settings → Account → Data UsageImages → Ask before displaying external images.

Gmail App (iOS): Settings → Account → Images → Ask before displaying external images

How to stop tracking pixels on Apple Mail

If you are using Apple Mail, you can follow the methods below:

  • Apple Mail (Mobile): Settings → Mail → Load Remote Images → Toggle off
  • Apple Mail (PC): Preferences → Viewing → Load Remote Images (unmark)

How to stop tracking pixels on Outlook

microsoft outlook logo on blurred background
Image: KnowTechie

Finally, for those using Outlook, here are all your options:

  • Microsoft Outlook (Windows): Options → Outlook Options → Trust Center → Trust Center Settings → Don’t download pictures automatically in standard HTML email messages or RSS items (Check the box) → Don’t download pictures automatically in encrypted or signed HTML email messages (Check the box)
  • Microsoft Outlook (Mac): File→ Preferences → Reading → Security → Automatically download pictures from the internet → Never
  • Microsoft Outlook (Web): Settings → View all Outlook settings → Privacy and Data → External Images → Always use the Outlook services to load images

You can also use browser extensions to help you detect pixel trackers, with some being able to block them. An example of such extensions is PixelBlock for Gmail which lets you know if there is a pixel tracker in your mail and blocks it. 

There are clients like Thunderbird that blocks pixel trackers by default. On a closing note, clicking a link in your email might lead to the sender getting details on you the same way a pixel tracker would, so you might want to do that only for trusted sources.

Have any thoughts on this? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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Odunayo is a freelance content writer with a knack for mobile tech and tech explainers.

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