What is email tracking pixel and how to block them on iPhone

What is email tracking pixel and how to block them on iPhone

If you’re new to digital marketing or are just reading about how data tracking works, you must have heard of a term being thrown away nowadays — “tracking pixel” or “email tracking pixel” or just “pixel.” It’s a (new) fancy way of tracking a user, and sometimes, people even refer to it as “spy pixels.”

Let me take you through the modern but petty world of digital marketing and tell you what email tracking pixels are and what you can do to block them on your iPhone.

What is a tracking pixel?

Companies that use email marketing campaigns to engage audiences, need to know if the sent emails are being read. That’s where tracking pixels come to the picture! A tracking pixel is a small image created using an HTML code (as shown below).

What is a tracking pixel

As we know, the images you see on the web are stored on some server in the world. As you open an email or a webpage, that image, aka pixel, is downloaded to your PC and shown via your browser.

This helps return a ‘flag’ to the server hosting the image and let the sender know whether the webpage, email, or document has been opened and collect more data. Take this ‘flag’ as a trigger that, well, triggers when you open the mail.

Moreover, the size of the tracking pixel is often in bytes, so it is downloaded even in a low-internet speed zone. Since it happens in milliseconds, it isn’t easy to prevent. Simple yet effective, eh?

There’s also an advanced version of a tracking pixel, known as “conversion pixel,” that comes into play when you purchase a product from an email with a tracking pixel. It’s much more advanced and is generally responsible for tracking sales from a specific ad campaign.

So, why should you care about it?

Well, firstly, privacy, Duh! Secondly, consent.

Tracking pixels are often embedded in emails and webpages in which the end-users probably don’t know about it. It violates your privacy and allows the data company to collect information about your online behavior, for example, your shopping patterns and what you like to see.

The latest GDPR laws in Europe prevent companies from inserting a tracking pixel in emails and web pages. And even if they do, users have to be informed that a website collects data through it. Users should have the right to object to the tracking.

GDPR laws in Europe to prevent companies from email tracking pixel

About other regions, it’s specific to the respective country’s laws. For instance, there are no declarations that companies have to make for the readers in India, at least as of writing this article.

What data does email tracking pixels collect?

If you’re wondering what data tracking pixels collect, here’s a small list of potentially visible things:

  • Type of operating system being used — can target ads based on your mobile’s OS.
  • Website visiting time or email reading time — shows your intent.
  • Type of email or website used (on desktop or mobile).
  • Type of client used (a mail program or browser) — can target different pricing for different users.
  • IP address — potentially, location as well.
  • Activities on the site during a session — shows your interest on the site’s landing page.
  • The screen resolution of clients.

How to know if your email has a tracking pixel

You probably haven’t seen a tracking pixel, at least not with the naked eyes. As mentioned above, these pixels are tiny in size; some are even 1px X 1px and are buried cunningly in emails, in things like the sender’s signature, the fancy font they use, or the webpage’s header.

Moreover, the technology available nowadays allows for a transparent tracking pixel making it virtually impossible to see. But there’s a way out! You can block those pixels.

How to block tracking pixels on iPhone

There are several ways by which you can block tracking pixels on iPhone. Let’s start with the easiest method and move our way up!

1. Change DNS settings

This method won’t require you to change any of the surfing settings. To set a dedicated DNS server on iOS, such as Cloudflare’s WARP, follow these steps:

  1. Go to Settings.
  2. Tap Wi-Fi and select your Wi-Fi network.
  3. Now tap the ‘i’ button next to it.
  4. Scroll down and select Configure DNS.
  5. Change it to Manual and enter the desired DNS address.

    Change DNS settings on iPhone
    Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 is one of the privacy-focused DNS services, and we recommend you use it for preventing tracking pixels from tracking you.
  6. Select Add Server and add 1.1.1.1.
  7. Select it again and enter 1.0.0.1.

2. Turn on Private Relay

Apple introduced a new feature called Private Relay with iOS 15. This is a feature for iCloud+ subscribers that protects iPhone not only from tracking pixels but also from other tracking activities. Here’s how you can turn on Private Relay on iPhone.

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Tap your Apple ID section.
  3. Select iCloudPrivate Relay.

    Select iCloud from iPhone's Settings
  4. Toggle it on.

    Turn on Private Relay on iPhone

3. Turn on Privacy Protection in Mail settings

As we’ve mentioned above, tracking pixels force their way into your iPhone’s email app through images. If you block auto-loading images for the mail app, you might block some of the tracking pixels.

In iOS 15, Apple has upped the privacy game. It now blocks tracking natively.

  1. Open iPhone Settings.
  2. Scroll down and select Mail.
  3. Now, under the Privacy Protection section, turn on Protect Mail Activity.

    Turn on Privacy Protection in Mail settings on iPhone

This will protect your iPhone not only from tracking pixels but also from other phishy tracking activities.

This article is just the basics of what a tracking pixel can track. The technology has become much more sophisticated and can potentially be exploited for more.

We hope you understand what tracking pixels are and how you can block them on your iPhone. If you’ve any other questions about tracking pixels, leave a comment below. We would be happy to help!

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