How to Tell Which Emails Quietly Track You

EVERYONE SENDS EMAILS now: political parties, your book club, freelance journalists, the social networks you’re signed up to, your parents, that online store that you only bought one item from a decade ago, and many, many more.

What do a lot of those email senders have in common? They want to know whether the messages they send you are being opened, and there are a variety of tools available to help them do just that—tools that aren’t all that hard to use.

A tracking pixel, embedded somewhere in the email, is how most people monitor whether an email gets opened. Once the tiny, hidden single-pixel image is loaded, it reports back to base. Their use across emails is now up to “endemic” levels according to some experts.

Tracking pixels can report the times and dates their associated email was opened, as well as the location of the device used, and the email client involved. That’s a lot of data to feed back to a third-party that you might not know much about.

Marketers and newsletter writers would say this kind of tracking is essential to understand their audience and what they’re most interested in reading about—as well as the sort of return they’re getting on their advertising dollars—but from the other end, it can feel like an invasion of privacy to essentially have an eye hovering over your shoulder making a note every time you open and read a specific email, especially if only learn that it’s happening after the fact.

You might not be able to do much about the use of these tracking pixels, but you can take steps to stop them from functioning, and to see which messages include them—so you know which people and which companies are taking a particular interest in you, and you can choose who to allow and who not to.

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