What is a tracking pixel? How it tracks email and web users

Anton P. | March 08, 2022

A sneaky tracking pixel is a small image embedded in emails or websites. Its purpose is to check whether users have opened specific content. So, its integration into emails has become common, with both downsides and benefits. For instance, marketers would argue a tracking pixel is indispensable for getting to know one’s audience. However, privacy-conscious users can feel uncomfortable with companies monitoring their online interactions.

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Understanding tracking pixels and their purpose

A tracking pixel has many names: web beacon, spy pixel, tracking bug, and pixel tag. Essentially, it is a tiny image file added to emails or websites for overseeing whether users open specific content.

As reported in 2021, the spy pixels have become endemic, used more frequently than ever. The study concluded that two-thirds of emails delivered to Hey’s users feature tracking pixels. Such numbers are heavy, especially considering that they do not incorporate spam.

Companies stay on the lookout without triggering suspicion by camouflaging web beacons. So, users exposed to this sly supervision typically won’t notice the 1x1 pixel image.

They can be transparent or seamlessly integrated into web or email designs. They won’t stand out in any way, and the only way to check their existence is to check the code. Users also do not need to perform an explicit action to enable tracking pixels. All it takes is interacting with an email message or opening web content.

Web beacons have been around for years, but they are not as well-known as third-party cookies or browser fingerprinting. However, it is one of the components representing a twisted invasion of privacy.

What information do tracking pixels gather?

If active, web beacons can reveal the following information about users:

  • If the user opens/views an email letter or content.
  • When the users opened/viewed the content.
  • On what device the interaction occurs.
  • Approximate physical location extracted from users’ IP addresses.

Thus, tracking pixels can capture important users’ information, like determining their location and whether the email address is active. In fact, many social engineering scams integrate web beacons into their spam letters.

How do scammers use tracking pixels?

It is common for online scammers to embed tracking pixels into their email messages. Spammers and phishers do this for several reasons:

  • To determine which email addresses are active. Users do not have to respond to received messages. All it takes is opening an email, which indicates that the email address is currently in use. That could facilitate the further distribution of spam to that inbox.
  • To learn more about their targets. Tracking pixels deliver an extensive receipt to its controllers. That piece of information contains significant details, like people’s locations, which phishers could exploit for future scams.

So, while marketers use web beacons to fine-tune their approaches, scammers exploit it for a more wicked purpose. Full disclosure, both applications of spy pixels are questionable, but their viciousness is on different spectrums.

Main issues with tracking pixels

Tracking pixels are incredible helpers for keeping tabs on essential metrics like user behavior, web traffic, and site conversions. Despite being key in measuring engagement levels, its effect on users’ privacy can be detrimental. Here are some of the reasons why experts discourage the use of tracking pixels:

  • Interpretations made from users’ behavior. Marketers can send follow-ups to people that opened but did not respond to their messages. It constitutes the further arrival of unwanted correspondence.
  • Lack of transparency and consent. GDPR requires companies to inform their clients about tracking pixels within their emails. However, many users might agree to spy pixels without even realizing it. For instance, people could authorize such monitoring after signing up for a newsletter, as stated in terms of use. Knowing the length of such documents, many clients will click agree without ever reading them.
  • Tracking pixels are invisible. Tiny images hide reasonably well. Thus, users won’t notice them simply by looking at the web content or an email. If users do not read the terms of use beforehand, there will be limited options for discovering them.
  • Another approach of unnecessary tracking. Privacy invasions represent a tactical collection of techniques entities apply to learn more about users. For some, the nature of tracking pixels can seem harmless. However, others can feel uncomfortable about having their activities monitored continuously.

How to put a stop to tracking pixels?

While privacy-focused browsers block third-party cookies automatically, tracking pixels do not get the same treatment. Additionally, blocking web beacons can mean preventing all automatic image uploads. While it beats such trackers, the effect can significantly hinder one’s browsing experience.

You can stop email tracking via different settings of emailing providers (like Gmail and Yahoo). It is possible to allow automatic image loading only after explicit permission. Some services like Outlook can launch external media through their servers, protecting you as a result.

As for browsers, the situation is a bit more complex. You can block all third-party images from loading automatically. However, such modifications can drastically change the way you surf online. More user-friendly options include browser add-ons that can block trackers seamlessly.

Use Atlas VPN to block tracking pixels

Usually, a VPN would not work against tracking pixels. However, Atlas VPN is no ordinary VPN: our protection extends outside the usual scope.

Atlas VPN includes a unique Shield feature, blocking various third-party trackers. The protection also covers web beacons, meaning that your browsing should be free of them. All you need to do is get Atlas VPN premium, and you will have full access to Shield. Activate it, and continue your digital journey without worrying about someone tracking your online interactions.

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Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.


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