You may not know it but all of the tempting emails that you receive at 3pm on Friday (maybe showcasing the latest office chair on sale!), showing you the latest tech deals on offer from your major brands, are tracking you. In your excitement you might click on one of these offers to look at what exciting new gadget is on the market.
Marketing emails such as these are targeted at making you click on the attractive contents of the email, in order to track you. From your interaction with the email, the specific company from which the email was sent has now gathered a lot of information about you. This can include your IP address, the time you opened the email, as well as your location.
Most of this happens with you unaware, through hidden pixels contained in a certain link or image on the page. This is all geared towards marketers for these companies being better able to target you and the audience that you represent. It is referred to as the “endemic”, and it is annoying, unwelcome, and intrusive. So, how do you stop it?
How You Are Being Tracked
Tracking pixels are usually just one pixel and are pretty much invisible to the naked eye; they are generally included in the header, body, or footer of the email. While you may not be able to see them, they are activated once the email is opened and immediately begin to feed information back to the company. Many email services allow for third-party images to be loaded as a default, and marketers take advantage of this by inserting these tracking pixels into their emails.
Your device type, IP address, and location can be just some of the information that the tracking pixels can collect. Other forms of info can be your time zone, whether you read the message and the web browser that you use. The location is one of the more concerning types of information that can be collected. It can be used to examine your day-to-day routine and figure out where you live and work. Remember, this is all happening without your consent.
This technique can be used in almost any industry, and companies can work together and share your information to form a more comprehensive profile of you. This is why you may think that advertisements are freaky as they display something you like without you ever having searched for it. There are regulations in place to stop this information being collected without your permission, however these rules are not widely enforced and many companies are still getting away with it.
How To Stop It
Different platforms have their different ways of preventing this from happening. Apple released their Mail Privacy Protection that can be turned on by any Apple user. It can be found in the Settings > Mail > Privacy Protection and turn on Protect Mail Activity. In macOS, it is similar, go to Mail > Mail Preferences > Preferences and turn on Protect Mail Activity.
Outside of your phone/laptop manufacturer, you can also set your email provider to not load pictures as a default, since this is where the tracking pixels typically are. For Gmail, you can find the setting to do this in Settings (naturally) > Images > Ask Before Displaying External Images. Google does have its own layer of protection as it shows pictures through its own proxy, generally hiding your IP address.
Contrastingly, even though Outlook does show images on its own proxy, you cannot stop images from showing completely so be aware that some of your data may be collected.
It is important to note that while blocking images from loading does stop you from being tracked, it will hurt your user experience. No images will appear on newsletters, emails, unless you download them yourself. Even content that you have purposefully subscribed to will be affected, so just keep that in mind.
Other Ways of Blocking Trackers
There are some other options out there when trying to stop companies collecting your information. You can install a VPN, Cloudfare’s WARP app, Ugly Email which is an add on for Google Chrome, and other email providers that make privacy a priority.
So have you had any experience with companies tracking you or collecting your information? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Ryan Clancy is an engineering writer, with 5+ years of engineering experience. He’s passionate about all things engineering, especially mechanical, and bringing engineering down to a level that everyone can understand. Ryan lives in New York City, and writes about mechanical and all other types of engineering, at Mechanical Engineering HQ.
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