What Are Tracking Pixels, and How to Stop Them from Spying on You?

what is tracking pixel (web beacon): image of a internet user running from a stalking zombie juicer
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You know the feeling. You research a potential purchase on an online store. Then, suddenly you notice that product is tracking you down throughout the internet. The reason why that zombie offer stalks you around everywhere you browse are web beacons or tracking pixels.

Those marketing tools allow companies to track users across the web. Although they’re pretty standard these days, their unrestricted usage can represent a serious threat to your privacy and security.

As an introductory guide to web beacons, this article provides basic information on what they are, how they work, and why you should care about them. Of course, you’ll also find out how to avoid those annoying ads and data exposure.

Table of Contents

Short version

  • Tracking pixels, or web beacons, are pieces of code used to track people online;
  • They embed tiny hidden images on a page or message that are fired every time the content is loaded, sending back about the users;
  • Through this mechanism, companies gather a large amount of information about internet users, making it possible for them to increase the effectiveness of their marketing efforts, thus, increasing revenue;
  • The problem is that it usually happens in an unethical manner, without users’ consent;
  • To prevent your data from being stored and shared freely online and avoid being manipulated by big corporations, you should take proper privacy measures;
  • You have some easy ways to protect your data ranging from disabling image loading on your email client and tweaking your browser’s settings, to installing a privacy-focused browser add-on or getting a VPN with built-in ad-blocking features.

What are tracking pixels?

Tracking pixels are tiny images (usually one pixel in size) that marketers embed in emails and web pages for tracking purposes.

These pixels have many other names by which they are also known. I’ll list some of them below, as they help to understand what they are and how they work:

  • Web beacons;
  • Web bugs;
  • Pixel tags;
  • Pixel trackers;
  • Clear GIFs;
  • Spy pixels.

 

What are they used for?

Tracking pixels are used to trace internet users’ actions and behavior while gathering all kinds of data about them at the same time. The two primary goals behind them are monitoring and profiling.

Although they are part of the internet, web beacons have been used in far harmful ways, especially regarding your privacy. 

Why are tracking pixels bad?

Tracking pixels or web beacons are handy for business owners as they allow optimized marketing efforts. However, from the perspective of internet users, it can ruin their browsing experience and expose them to severe risks.

Beyond user experience, web bugs collect, store, and share much data about people’s actions and behavior online. Information gathered about the user can get pretty granular, allowing for the creation of detailed reports and profiles about you.

These days, more than ever, information is power. And that power may be used against you in many unethical and unfair ways by corporations and governments. Applications can go as far as psychologically manipulating users’ beliefs and actions.

Web beacons are also responsible for all the annoying unsolicited ads you face online tens of times a day. They steal not only your attention but also your bandwidth and performance. For mobile devices, especially, that is a massive downside.

What do companies say about their tracking practices?

In their defense, companies justify tracking as a standard marketing practice. Many limit themselves to strict legal permission arguments. “As long as we mention it in our privacy policy,” they would say, “we’re not doing anything wrong.”

But the question is far more complex than that. The extent to which businesses have deployed the practice raises ethical concerns and potential privacy issues.

Considering users usually cannot see those pixels (as they show the same color of the background, as a rule), it’s hard to tell if companies can stand by their claims of fair play.

How do tracking pixels work? 

Web beacons can be inserted into virtually any digital content or product by embedding a small piece of code within it. This code allows for communication between the pixel and tracking software.

So, it’s reasonable to assume you interact with them many times a day without even realizing it. Marketers use to place web bugs mainly on three types of content:

 

Every time the “bugged” content is accessed, the pixel fires, thus sending data back to the tracker.

What do web beacons actually track?

These web bugs can track all sorts of things, as they are well-suited digital spies. It only depends on what actions people perform and which data they share online. Some examples of what information they collect, considering the content type, might be:

Interactions with content

  • Emails opened;
  • Links clicked;
  • Pages viewed;
  • Ads viewed;
  • Ads clicked on;
  • Items added to the cart or wish lists;
  • Registration fully or partially completed;
  • Items purchased;
  • Cart abandoned;
  • Lists subscribed.

 

Personally identifiable information (PII)

  • Devices used;
  • Resolution of the screen;
  • OS and version installed;
  • Browser and version used;
  • Unencrypted form data;
  • Language preferences;
  • Internet protocol (IP) address;
  • Internal searches performed;
  • Deduced physical location.

 

 Other details

  • Number of times the interaction occurred;
  • What time they happened;
  • Software and hardware versions.

 

All that data allow third parties to generate rich information and create detailed profiles about internet users as a result.

Are tracking pixels or beacons the same as cookies?

Web beacons and HTTP cookies are similar methods to track people online. But there are fundamental differences, especially in what concerns the ways companies deploy them. For example, while both are pieces of code, cookies are placed on users’ devices and, therefore, need consent to operate.

On the other hand, tracking pixels or bugs are embedded in the content users interact with online. Although companies must disclose their usage, unlike cookies, those codes fire as soon as you land on a page or open an email.

What are web beacons used for?

Web beacons are used to collect data. There are several applications to these pixel tags. In most cases, they are used to identify users across different browsing sessions and devices, thus, registering their habits and behavior.

Web beacons help advertisers, marketers, and all kinds of companies in building granular user profiles. They track potential or current customers’ actions to “guide” them through a path designed for revenue.  

What are the types of tracking pixels?

There are two types of web beacons or tracking pixels, depending on what they are meant to collect.

Conversion pixels

When they are set up to track specific actions companies want them to perform, they are called conversion pixels. They track users’ behavior across a pre-defined funnel, with clear stages and desired actions to be taken within each of them until the final goal, usually a sale. This type of web bug can also track email opens, click-through actions, downloads, and so on.

Retargeting pixels

Sometimes, the path to conversion is not that linear and straightforward as a funnel. In these cases, marketers need to keep track of users among different sessions and interactions with the brands they represent.

Based on data collected, they can then mark these potential customers for retargeting ads. Given they had previous contact with the brand o the product, they tend to convert better than first-time visitors. 

What is an example of a tracking pixel?

You probably heard about Facebook Pixels. Simply put, website owners install this little piece of code on their pages and, as soon as you perform specific tasks, your actions and overall behavior are sent back to Facebook’s database. Then, FB can pinpoint target you with ads (and all kinds of content) based on that information.

I’ll tell you a fictitious story (based on facts, of course) to give you a better idea.

The case of the zombie juicer

Imagine you wanted to buy a new juicer to prepare awesome smoothies. For some time, you research several brands and models, looking for the most suitable one. Finally, you find the right pick, go to an e-commerce site and visit the juicer’s details page. But, before buying it, you decide to search the web for the best possible deal and leave the page.

From that moment on, you start seeing that same juicer wherever you go online. It’s like a curse. You check your social media; bam, the juicer pops up. You read some stories on a blog; zap, the creepy juicer is weaved within the content. Then, you receive a notification on your smartphone, and the zombie juicer is back, across devices. That can go forever, even after you’ve purchased the product.

The only way to stop this madness is to find a way to block those nasty bugs spying on you. Fortunately, you have some excellent options at hand.

How to block web beacons and prevent pixel tracking?

Despite the apparent potential risk these bugs represent for your privacy, dealing with them is pretty straightforward. Most of the time, you can block them just by setting up the proper defensive measure. Take a look at the following solutions at your disposal:

Set up your email client to only load images manually

Luckily, privacy-concerned email clients, for instance, are currently blocking images from loading automatically, protecting their users from beacons, also known as clear gifs. But, anyway, you’d better make sure and deactivate auto-loading for embedded images if still on.

Gmail

Microsoft Outlook

Yahoo!

Apple Mail

Take advantage of your browser’s privacy settings

Most modern web browsers offer settings that can help you stop beacons or, at least, limit their snooping. The problem is these features usually are not activated by default. Here’s how you can find them on your current browser:

Chrome

Safari

Edge

Firefox

Switch to a web browser better suited for privacy

Much better than configuring your mainstream browser for private browsing is to get a privacy-focused one. Dump your current browser and choose one of the more suitable choices below:

Brave

Epic

Opera

Tor browser

Add on a privacy browser extension

Whichever browser you use, it’s also worth adding a privacy extension to your defenses. The good ones do a great job in most cases of privacy intrusion.

Here’s a list of the most popular ad blockers and their respective browser support:

Privacy Badger (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Opera)

Adblock Plus (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Edge Opera, and Yandex)

Ghostery (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Opera)

uBlock Origin (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Opera)

Trocker (Chrome, Edge, Opera, Brave, and Firefox)

Use dedicated ad blockers

Dedicated software specifically designed to block ads are more capable and sophisticated at this task than other complementary solutions. 

AdLock

AdGuard

Use a VPN with a built-in ad blocker

If you look for extensive privacy protection, then you’d better go for a VPN. The more complete choices come with ad blockers incorporated into the package.

NordVPN

Surfshark

ProtonVPN

Private Internet Access

All these types of ad-blocking tools have inherent advantages and drawbacks. I will discuss them in further detail in future articles. But, for now, you have plenty of choices to get you going with better protection against adware.

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