What’s a tracking pixel? It’s just about as interesting as it sounds, and you’ve probably loaded thousands of them (or more) this year alone. But are they a privacy concern? Tracking pixels themselves, despite their almost Orwellian name, are actually quite simple and relatively innocuous. It’s what advertisers do with them that’s controversial—but there are a few things you can do about it. So, are they a serious threat to privacy? Not really, but it’s still essential for everyone to be aware of them and what they do. Hopefully, we can shed some light on this common tracking tool and give you a better idea of how it works.
Tracking Pixels Explained
Advertisers, online marketers use tracking pixels, and companies to collect data for targeted ads and site analysis. A tracking pixel is just that—a pixel. It’s a tiny 1×1 pixel embedded into emails, websites, and other forms of digital information, and it’s almost always impossible to see. A tracking pixel is embedded by code (which contains a link) into the media. When a client opens an email and then views a website, their browser loads this pixel and the code. The pixel then registers the visit and sends information to the ‘pixel server’ through the link embedded into the code.
- What operating system you run
- What kind of websites (mobile or desktop) you visit
- Type of client used (website or email mailbox)
- Your computer’s screen resolution
- The time that the email was opened or website visited
- What you did on the website you visited (if there are multiple pixels)
- IP Addresses*
*Tracking pixels generally can’t find your precise location from this data, just your service provider and general geographic location.
Why Tracking Pixels are Important
Tracking pixels are tremendously useful for website owners, advertisers, and businesses. These pixels are not bad by nature—but they can be a little sneaky. And no, they can’t collect ultra-precise data about your every move online. Online marketing, as annoying as it may seem, is one of the reasons the internet is so useful. Plus, geographically targeted ads help local businesses and generally promote the growth of companies you love (and maybe even work for). So, they have legitimate uses that benefit the population as a whole. But do the ends really justify the means? They have some downsides too.
Tracking Pixels and Scammers
As with any seemingly innocent technology, the spammers get ahold of it too. Have you ever received a silent phone call, where the ‘person’ on the other side hangs up immediately? You probably got tons of nagging scam calls after—and tracking pixels work the same way. Scam artists and bots send out emails with these pixels to determine if addresses are valid. If it is, they’ll know, and you’ll be targeted for more spam and scams. Tracking pixels, like other forms of cybersecurity threat, can be prevented using tech designed by diligent coders (you can learn to do this too).
How to Avoid Tracking Pixels
If you’re concerned with your privacy (as you should be), it’s important to know about tracking pixels. The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of them don’t pose any real threat to your sensitive information (at least for now), so it’s not necessarily imperative to block them out. We can even lump them into the same category as cookies, though they’re slightly less invasive. But if you want to rid your inbox of tracking pixels, it’s pretty easy—simply change your settings to block HTML content and prevent images from loading without permission. With these simple modifications, you’ll be protected from email tracking pixels. You can also change your firewall setting, use proxy servers, or use a Tor browser to avoid downloading these pixels while surfing the web.