What is a tracking pixel, and how does it work?
A tracking pixel is usually a transparent image 1×1 pixel big embedded into your email just like any other picture. You don’t see it, but once you open the email, it gets downloaded by your device just like any other image in the letter.
At most benign, a system uses the connection established to download the tracking pixel to verify that the email was opened and when that happened. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. An app called Superhuman allowed users to find out an email recipient’s address via tracking pixels, and that’s before you get into criminal uses that come from knowing where someone was and when they opened an email.
Luckily, there are ways of preventing the pixels from working – or at least making their tasks harder.
Block Email Tracking on Major Email Platforms
Blocking email tracking is usually done via disabling image autoloading. This procedure is a bit different for every email provider.
- In your inbox, click the gear icon on the right and then click See All Settings
- In the General tab, scroll down to Images.
- Select the option Ask before displaying external images (it also says that this will disable dynamic email).
- Click Save Changes at the very bottom of the page.
Outlook.com now loads online images via proxy in an effort to keep you safe from malicious content – including trackers. As such, there’s no way to disable image loading in the system itself.
- Click the Settings menu icon (a gear) and select More Settings.
- Select Viewing Email.
- Go to the Show images in messages
- Select Ask before showing external images
Block Email Tracking with Browser Extensions
Browser extensions are another popular way to block email tracking – just find that fits your browser.
For Firefox, Trocker is the leading choice.
Block Email Tracking with Email Clients
Do you use an email client rather than accessing your inbox via the browser? If so, you’ll need to do this to block email tracking:
Apple Mail on macOS
- Select Mail and go to Preferences.
- Select Viewing.
- Unselect Load remote content in messages.
Mail on iPhone
- Tap Settings and go to Mail.
- Go to Messages.
- Turn off Load Remote Images
Gmail on Android
- Tap the three horizontal lines in the upper left corner next to Search in mail
- Scroll down to Settings at the bottom and tap it.
- Select the account you wish to configure.
- Scroll down to Images and tap on it.
- Select Ask before displaying external images (also disables dynamic email).
Gmail on iOS
- Tap the three horizontal lines in the upper left.
- Scroll down and tap Settings.
- Choose the account to configure.
- Tap Images.
- Select Ask before displaying external images.
Microsoft Outlook 365
All Outlook clients seem to block image download by default.
Yahoo Mail For Android and iOS
- Tap on the Profile icon.
- Access Settings.
- Swipe Block images left.
Can a VPN help?
VPNs are meant to improve your security and privacy online, and they can provide a measure of defense against email tracking as well. For example, if the tracker is recording your IP address, a VPN can foil that handily: providing you with a new IP is one of the base functions of a VPN.
Aside from that, a lot depends on the additional features of a VPN client. For example, Surfshark’s CleanWeb feature blocks malware links, so if the tracker’s link is on the list of blocked websites, it will be stopped.
However, VPNs really shine in proving a boost to your privacy outside of merely blocking email trackers:
- VPNs encrypt your traffic, so if your ISP (internet service provider) or a state security agency is trying to intercept it, they won’t be able to read anything.
- VPNs hide your IP, which makes you a lot harder to track online – this includes people and agencies who would try to track you down when you’re sharing torrents.
- VPN encryption means that anyone observing your traffic only sees VPN use – and not that you’re using it for gaming, streaming, or Tor.
Once you block email trackers, you should seriously consider getting a VPN to help you with your other security needs.
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