What is email tracking, and why you should turn it off

Block Email Tracking

The simple act of reading your email could give companies and advertisers a lot more information than you’d like. 

Email tracking allows the sender to see when an email was opened by a recipient, how many times it was opened, how long they spent reading it, and even which links the reader clicked on. This tracking capability is usually found in marketing emails and helps brands know how popular certain products, headlines, and keywords perform with customers. 

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Email tracking has been around for a long time and is used by most big brands. A 2018 study conducted by Princeton University estimated that up to 70% of mailing lists use email tracking tools. 

It may not be an issue if you trust the companies (like ExpressVPN!) sending you newsletters and promotions. But it is general knowledge that you shouldn’t even open unwelcome emails (such as spam), because it confirms to the sender that your email address is active and encourages them to keep sending you unwanted mail.

How does email tracking work? 

There are usually two ways email tracking occurs: through a read receipt or through an email with tracking pixels. 

Tracking pixels are essential tags that are included in the HTML code of a site or an email. The 1×1 pixel image is so small it’s practically invisible. It’s also often embedded in the header or footer of an email, so users almost never notice it. 

When a user clicks on the tracking pixel, the user’s browser will follow and open the link. This action is then registered in the server’s log files, providing information about how a user interacted with that piece of content. 

When integrated with Javascript, pixel tracking can also collect information about a user’s IP address, the browser they’re using, plugins installed, and even their screen resolution—all without the user’s knowledge.

Why is this technology problematic? 

Data protection advocates generally criticize tracking pixels because of the comprehensive amount of data that can be collected about users without their knowledge. Embedding trackers into emails is astonishingly easy, with a wide range of third-party email tracking software available.

Hypothetically, with an IP address, it is possible for companies to match the information of a user with the rest of their digital footprint, such as their social media accounts. 

What’s more alarming is that spammers who obtain large databases of emails can track if an email address is valid when a user opens and interacts with elements within emails. 

How you can stop email tracking

Creeped out by all the information marketers and companies can potentially collect from you? The great news is that there are many ways you can stop it. 

  1. Disable image loading in your email 

When you disable images from automatically loading in your email, you’re preventing tracking pixels from loading as well. 

Here’s how to do it on some popular email services: 

  • For Gmail on desktop: Click Settings > General > under Images, check the Ask before displaying external images option.
  • For the Gmail app on mobile: Open up Settings > Select your account > scroll down to and tap Images > select the Ask before displaying external images option 
  • For the iOS Mail App on iPhone and iPad: Open Settings > Mail > toggle the Load Remote Images slider to “off”. 
  • For Outlook on desktop: By default, images are blocked in Outlook. But if you needed to turn that setting off, do one of the following.
    • Click Download Pictures from the email banner, or
    • Click File > Options > Trust Centre > Trust Centre Settings > Automatic Download > check the box for Don’t download pictures automatically in standard HTML e-mail messages or RSS items.
  • For Outlook on mobile: Tap the profile icon > tap Settings > select your account > toggle the Block external images slider to “off”. 

2. Use a browser extension to check for email trackers

Want to be doubly sure you’re not getting tracked via email? Even after you’ve disabled images from loading automatically in your emails, you can go one step further by installing a browser extension such as Ugly Email and Trocker that will notify when they detect if an email you’ve opened has tracking pixels, and block them. A word of caution: These browser extensions will require access to your inbox, which could allow access to your emails. 

3. Use a VPN to stop your IP from being tracked

With a VPN enabled, you’ll temporarily be able to change your IP address so email trackers won’t be able to accurately know your location. 

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