BBC News: ‘Spy Pixels in Emails Have Become Endemic’

Speaking of Hey, BBC News ran a piece on email spy pixels last week:

The use of “invisible” tracking tech in emails is now “endemic”, according to a messaging service that analysed its traffic at the BBC’s request. Hey’s review indicated that two-thirds of emails sent to its users’ personal accounts contained a “spy pixel”, even after excluding for spam. […]

Defenders of the trackers say they are a commonplace marketing tactic. And several of the companies involved noted their use of such tech was mentioned within their wider privacy policies.

“It’s in our privacy policy” is nonsense when it comes to email spy pixels. It’s nonsense for most privacy policies, period, because most privacy policies are so deliberately long, opaque, and abstruse as to be unintelligible. But with email they’re absurd. The recipient of an email containing a tracking pixel never agreed to any privacy policy from the sender.

And “it’s a commonplace marketing tactic” is not a defense. It’s an excuse, but it’s a shitty one. It just shows how out of control the entire tracking industry is. Their justification for all of it is, effectively, “It’s pervasive so it must be OK.” That’s like saying back in the 1960s that most people smoke so it must be safe. Or that most people don’t wear seat belts so that must be safe.

Emails pixels can be used to log:

  • if and when an email is opened
  • how many times it is opened
  • what device or devices are involved
  • the user’s rough physical location, deduced from their internet protocol (IP) address - in some cases making it possible to see the street the recipient is on

Hey’s default blocking of spy pixels — along with displaying a prominent badge shaming the sender for using them — is one of its best features. Apple should take a long hard look at Mail and the way that it does nothing to protect users’ privacy from these trackers. They’re insidious and offensive.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021