Why You Should Remove Trackers From Your Emails

Following you around the web

Key Takeaways

  • Email trackers are a growing threat to privacy, but there are ways to protect yourself.
  • DuckDuckGo now offers a service that will strip your email of trackers.
  • Companies, marketers, and even fraudsters like to embed tracking pixels into the emails they send.
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d3sign / Getty Images

Software hidden in your email may be tracking your every move on the internet, but there are a growing number of ways to remove it. 

DuckDuckGo, the privacy-oriented search provider, recently announced the launch of its Email Protection service. If you use the service, you’ll have access to a personal @duck.com email address you can provide to services you sign up for, and any received emails will be stripped of trackers by DuckDuckGo before being forwarded to your actual email address.

"Trackers in email support the usual functionality of sending and receiving messages," Michael Huth, head of the Computing Department at Imperial College London, told Lifewire in an email interview. "They also pose a threat to confidentiality and privacy. Trackers embed invisible images in web/HTTP-based emails. When emails are opened, these images or any other links in messages that users click activate a web reference."

Watching Me, Watching You

Email tracking is a major privacy issue, Jerry Ray, chief operating officer at cybersecurity company SecureAge, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"Because none of the data collection has been explicitly revealed by senders using tracking technology, nor has it been agreed to by recipients, that alone should be enough incentive for most to remove trackers from email," he added.

All kinds of companies, marketers, and even fraudsters often like to embed tracking pixels into their emails, Attila Tomaschek, a researcher for the website ProPrivacy, told Lifewire in an email interview. These tracking pixels are tiny, invisible single-pixel image files that are able to track when a user opens a particular email message, how many times the user opens the email, the approximate location of the user when they opened the email (via IP address), along with information related to the user’s device and operating system. 

"And, perhaps even more alarming, no action by the user whatsoever beyond opening the email message is necessary to trigger the tracking pixel and send all that data over to servers operated by the sender," Tomaschek added. "Email recipients will have no idea the tracker is there and will have no idea that they triggered the tracker and sent personal data to the sender."

Stop Them in Their Tracks

There are ways to fight back against trackers. Most of the bigger webmail providers have reliable image blocking technologies that can stop tracking technology that use the images to enable tracking. "But only upon users taking the initiative to learn how to adjust settings to perform the blocking that is not set by default," Ray said.

"Email recipients will have no idea the tracker is there and will have no idea that they triggered the tracker and sent personal data to the sender."

Perhaps the best browser extension available now is PixelBlock for Google Chrome, which will let you know if a tracker is present and effectively block it, Tomaschek said. The Trocker browser extension is similar in utility and works to block trackers, as well. The Ugly Email Chrome extension will even let you know if a tracker is present even before you open the email.

However, trackers aren’t the only privacy issue with email, experts say. 

"An email address is like a user’s universal identifier," Huth said. "Third parties can learn a lot from the traffic and content history associated with an email address."

lock and Stethoscope over a laptop computer keyboard toned in blue

Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

A user can improve their email privacy by limiting email usage to areas where email provides the greatest benefit, and carrying out other activities through more private tools, Huth said. For example, he suggested users set up a joint chat channel with a partner company. 

"This leads to a leaner inbox, which can only be a good thing," Huth said.

Users can also connect to a VPN to conceal their IP address, and therefore their actual location, Tomaschek said. 

"Doing this, however, will only hide the user’s information, while all other data would still be sent to the sender’s server by the tracking pixel," he added. "So it’s important for users to employ all the tools and resources at their disposal to block these tracking pixels and protect their privacy when using email."

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