Spy pixels are increasingly breaching privacy and tracking users across the globe. These tiny and oftentimes invisible images are part of email campaigns.
Also known as tracking pixels or web beacons, the new tracking method is easy to create, simple to deploy, highly effective, and remains invisible to the unsuspecting email user.
What exactly is a Spy Pixel and how email marketing campaigns use the same?
Analysts have studied hundreds of thousands of emails and realized email marketing campaigns are increasingly using Spy Pixels. These are essentially microscopic, oftentimes as small as 1×1 pixel in size.
Spy pixels are basically very minute images that users simply cannot see. Also known as tracking pixels or web beacons, they appear inside emails as tiny image files such as .PNG or .GIF. Email marketing campaigns insert these images inside the content body of an email.
Spy pixels in emails 'have become endemic' https://t.co/NFgMQD5BeY
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) February 17, 2021
These images could also be clear, white, or another color to merge with the content. The primary intention behind the appearance is to remain unseen by a recipient.
What’s highly concerning is the fact that a recipient of an email with the Spy Pixels does not need to directly engage with the same in any way for it to track certain activities. Whenever the recipient opens the laced email, the tracking pixel is automatically downloaded.
And here are some more: pic.twitter.com/QHDqFjXpHU
— DHH (@dhh) February 17, 2021
Needless to add, this download alerts the server hosting the Spy Pixel about the recipient opening the email. Furthermore, each time the same email is accessed, the server is alerted.
The Spy Pixel can also offer information about the IP address linked to a user’s location, and device usage. Web domains too are increasingly using Spy Pixels to track visitors and their usage patterns.
Why are Spy Pixels important and considered an invasion of privacy?
Spy Pixels can easily be an invaluable method to measure engagement levels. Companies can use the same to estimate the success of marketing campaigns.
Companies can also know if they should send follow-up emails with more personalized notes. This is easy because the tiny images can accurately convey when a recipient has opened the message but not responded to the same.
As a direct consequence of such effectiveness, these images are a direct threat to privacy. As they do not require any user activity, internet marketing companies readily use the same.
Overall, we found that TWO THIRDS of all emails that reach HEY customers contained spy pixels (not counting spam). This kind of pervasive surveillance has been flying under the radar for years and years. But the game is up.
— DHH (@dhh) February 17, 2021
There are certain provisions to prevent the use of Spy Pixels. However, service providers can obtain user consent easily during the single-time sign-up process.
Owing to the rising use of Spy Pixels, email users must take necessary precautions. Users can instruct email platforms not to allow automatic image downloads. There are email and browser add-ons to block trackers.
Quite recently, the humble Favicon was discovered as a tool for tacking internet user behavior and usage pattern detection. Now a 1×1 Spy Pixel is doing the same.