All of the marketing emails that flood your email account each don’t just make it harder to achieve inbox zero. Many of them actually do much more than push the brand’s message into your inbox — they also include unseen mechanisms that allow the email messages to essentially spy on you, tracking things like whether you opened the message and what time you did so.

Email is increasingly a tempting, juicy target for marketers looking to optimize their chances of getting their messages in front of you and hoping to convert that into some action on your part, such as by you completing a purchase. There are many ways this is done, including clickable links you follow that might take you to a brand’s product page, with the link having included a way for the brand to see basic info about you — like what browser you’re using. Another way that might seem particularly creepy to some people involves a tracker embedded in some emails called a “spy pixel.” Read on to learn a bit about what those are, and how you can try and avoid being tracked by them.

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What they are: Spy pixels, basically, are image files that are so small they’re invisible to the eye — yet inserted into the body of an email.

Without the recipient even needing to take any action, the pixels in these emails let the sender see if an email was opened, and when it was opened. This also means they’d know how many times it was opened and also what device it was opened on, in addition to getting a general idea of the recipient’s location, estimated from their IP address. As we noted in this previous post, spy pixels can actually be pretty invaluable to marketers, in that they help measure engagement levels for email messaging campaigns and help the marketers craft more specific and personalized follow-up emails to send to people — such as a personalized missive for someone who has clearly read the email but not yet responded to it.

One way to put a stop to this is to take steps to keep your email from letting images in messages automatically load. Remember, these spy pixels are essentially just super-small images added to the email message body. There are other ways marketers can track messages in your email account, so this won’t put you completely in the clear, but here’s how to take action against the spy pixels:

  • If you’re in your Gmail account and on a computer right now, click on the gear icon in the top right corner, and then click on “See all settings” (In the Gmail mobile app, look for the hamburger menu in the upper left corner).
  • Under the “General” tab, which should already be highlighted since it’s the first one, scroll down until you see “Images.”
  • Then, simply select the option that reads “Ask before displaying external images.”
  • Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Save Changes.”

Again, mechanisms like these that allow for more personalized interactions between brands and Internet users aren’t really nefarious in and of themselves. But there’s such a fine line between something that’s tailored just for you and something that’s crossed the line into being pretty creepy.

For Apple users, MailTrackerBlocker is an extension you can use for Apple Mail on macOS. It would be interesting to see if Apple decides to do something about this going forward and block the trackers themselves, especially given Apple CEO Tim Cook’s strong public comments regarding user privacy.

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Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.