‘Spy Pixels’ email epidemic, the good and the bad

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‘Spy Pixels’ is the new name for a common tracking method used in commercial emails.  We’ve written about them many times over the 20+ years of Office-Watch.com, the only new thing is the name.

What are Spy Pixels?

So called ‘Spy Pixels’ are tiny images (1 pixel only) linked in an email.  They are invisible to the human eye.  Like most email images, they have to be downloaded from the Internet when the email is opened. 

They can be blocked by Microsoft Outlook, with different Outlook solutions to ‘Spy Pixels’ in emails

Downloading anything from the Internet requires an exchange of information.  Your computer sends details like type of computer, browser and IP address (which can lead to an approximate location).  In return, the image is sent to add to the displayed email plus possibly a ‘cookie’.

Any image linked in an email does that. It’s the normal way the Internet works. The same information is sent every time you get a web page in your browser.

‘Spy Pixels’ are no different but hidden so what seems like a text email actually sends information back to the sender.

New interest in this old email trick started with a BBC News article “ ‘Spy pixels in emails have become endemic‘ ”.  While the facts in the article are correct, the heading makes it seem like this tactic is something new or worse than in the past.  As far as we can tell, these ‘spy pixels’ have been in wide use for at least a decade.  The experts quoted in the article sell products which claim to block these spy pixels.

Be aware of these tiny trackers in email but not alarmed.  They aren’t new.  Linked images are essential parts of many emails. Sadly, there’s no way to separate the good from the bad.

Why Spy Pixels?

Email senders can approximate who and how many people have opened the email, what type of device they have and where they are.  All useful marketing information.  Adding a cookie helps track the user across multiple visits.

We say ‘approximate’ because ‘spy pixels’ are a rough measure.  Just because a tiny image has been downloaded doesn’t mean the human has read the email or even cared about the contents.  VPN’s can obscure where a computer is.

Tiny ‘spy’ pixels aren’t always needed.  Most marketing emails include some larger images as part of the design.  Any or all those visible images send the same information.

Making pictures smaller – some more options.
Too many Microsoft Outlook’s – we explain them all
Different Outlook solutions to ‘Spy Pixels’ in emails

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