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Spy Pixels In Emails Are Now Pervasive

Billy Rooney   July 20, 2021

A collaboration between the BBC and a relatively new messaging service, Hey, has revealed that spy pixels, or tracking pixels, are pervasive in emails. Many email senders and receivers are unaware of the pixels, which are in many ways an invasion of privacy. As a provider of computer monitoring tools to help protect people online, we thought it necessary to report on the story. Here, we take an in depth look at how tracking pixels in emails have recently been exposed, name some of the companies that were discovered to use the pixels and provide an insight into the law surrounding the issue.

BBC & Hey Unite To Expose Spy Pixels

Earlier this year, the BBC asked messaging service Hey to assess its traffic, to determine just how widespread these spy pixels are in emails. The results were somewhat of an eye opener for many and has perhaps made some think twice about opening emails. Hey’s analysis of its system revealed that two-thirds of emails that were sent to its users’ personal accounts had a tracking pixel hidden within. These results are even more alarming when factoring in that spam emails were excluded from the review. It was discovered that many big name brands (listed below) use spy pixels in emails, however it has to be noted that ‘massive tech companies’ do not pursue such marketing tactics. The following companies were exposed as users of the pixels following the release of the review results:

  • British Airways
  • TalkTalk
  • Vodafone
  • Sainsbury’s
  • Tesco
  • HSBC
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Asos
  • Unilever

What Can Tracking Pixels In Emails Log?

gmail account on laptop

Tracking pixels in emails can reveal some information that could help businesses to better target consumers in their marketing efforts. Whilst some view the tracking pixels as a routine marketing tactic, many others perceive the use of the pixels as immoral and an invasion of privacy. Here’s what we know about emails pixels and what they can be used to log:

  • If and when a user opens an email
  • How many times a user opens an email
  • The devices that are involved with the opening of an email
  • An idea of the user’s physical location, revealed by their internet protocol (IP) address. It was even discovered that, in some cases, it was possible for companies to obtain the street name that a user lives on.

Tracking Pixels Are ‘Invisible’ & Widespread

The way in which spy pixels are incorporated in emails make them virtually undetectable. Even if you know where to look and what you are looking for, the chances are that you wouldn’t be able to pinpoint a spy pixel in an email. Tracking pixels can be as tiny as 1×1 pixels and are usually .GIF or .PNG files.

They are inserted into either the header, footer or body of emails and are blended into the brand colours. This, therefore, makes them extremely well hidden. In terms of activating tracking pixels, email users don’t need to do anything else apart from open the email. The pixels are embedded in emails and, as such, there is no link click required to make them active.

When it comes to protecting users against the email pixels, Hey is a front runner. The email service company provides a service to flag spy pixels in emails, however users must pay a yearly fee to be protected. Hey has a dedicated page on its website that details their stance on spy trackers. An alternative for email users is to install free plugins into other email programmes, which will negate a lot of spy pixels, but not all.

Laws Around Tracking Pixels In Emails

businessman using email

A number of the companies that were involved in the review insist that their use of pixels is mentioned in their privacy policies, however the general feeling is that a lot more needs to be done to make email users aware of the pixels. The use of spy pixels is governed in the UK and throughout other countries in Europe by the 2003 Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (Pecr) and the 2016 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). On the subject of GDPR, we covered the topic of How GDPR Affects the Use of Spy Cameras in the Workplace.

If a company makes use of spy pixels, they are required to let recipients know and, on the whole, gain consent. However, large organisations are getting around this by placing information about their use of tracking pixels in a privacy policy and claiming consent through this. Organisations such as Hey and Privacy Matters are insistent on holding companies more accountable for their use of spy pixels and are committed to changing the ways in which they ‘gain consent’. The law has been set out, according to the two regulatory policies mentioned above, but it seems as though regulatory enforcement is required. This could potentially involve users being asked to physically consent to the use of spy pixels in emails, by clicking a button.

A Comment From Hey

Co-creator of the email service Hey, technologist David Heinemeier Hansson from Denmark, has had his say on the privacy issues facing email users. He commented, as reported by the BBC, “On average, every Hey customer receives 24 emails per day that attempt to spy on them. The top 10% of users receive more than 50. We’re processing over one million emails a day and we’re just a tiny service compared to the likes of Gmail, but that’s north of 600,000 spying attempts blocked every day.”

Hansson also spoke about the effect that spy pixels can have on users who are being sold something by imposing sales workers. He continued: “Particularly with salespeople or consultants, they can go: ‘I saw you open my email yesterday, but you haven’t replied yet. Can I call? In some cases they get outright belligerent when they see you’ve opened it three times.”

It remains to be seen whether or not regulatory enforcement is administered and if organisations will be forced to adjust the way they inform email users of their tracking pixels.

Require Online Protection? Contact Spy Equipment UK

At Spy Equipment UK, we feel that we have a duty to bring you the latest news in online security and privacy. We hope you have found this insight useful. Not only do we provide information and analysis on the latest online privacy, we also have a variety of computer monitoring devices and phone monitoring tools that can help keep you and your loved ones safe when online. Give our team a call on 024 7601 0588 or email shop@spyequipment.co.uk if you would like to discuss our spy products in more detail.

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