Fastmail Keeps You Safe From Spy Pixels

Fastmail protects you from spy pixels and other remote images. As the world’s oldest independent email provider, we’ve been defending your privacy for over 20 years.

Fastmail has always been a privacy-focused email provider, and we’re encouraged to see the attention that data privacy is now receiving around the world. It’s very apparent that large brands have been underwriting the cost of service by making money from your data.

Recently, “spy pixels” have been in the news, with the BBC running a story about this marketing industry practice. Fastmail has blocked spy pixels by default for years. Your information is safe with us.

What is a spy pixel?

Spy pixels or tracking pixels are small images in an email that passes information about you back to the sender. They are typically used in emails from a company such as newsletters, or subscriptions. They could be a logo, a product image, or even just a colored background or a line border. These images live on the sender’s server. The tracking image can be very small (even just 1 or 2 pixels large) so it doesn’t make the email slower to load.

When you open your email, your mail program requests the image from the remote server (in the same way your browser does when you look at a web page). This request can be monitored by the sender.

These images do not allow the sender to breach the confidentiality of your inbox. They are intended to let the sender know if your email was interesting enough to read their message.

How do spy pixels work for tracking?

Every time a mail program opens an email that contains a remote image, the sender’s server knows the image was requested. But with each request usually goes some extra information such as: What IP address your email client is at (which can be used to reveal your approximate location within 50km/30mi)? What mail program you’re using (which can be used to know if you’re reading on a desktop, tablet, or phone)?

Some senders take an additional step and they create a unique link for each recipient to the image they use to track. This lets them know whether you’ve opened their email, where you are, and how you read your mail. No wonder tracking makes us feel that we’re being spied on!

Why do senders use tracking images?

As marketing has moved further online, companies want to understand whether they are reaching their audience. They want to know if their newsletters are being thrown in the trash, or opened, read and shared. There’s whole schools of thought about how to increase a marketing campaign’s open rate. After all, if they know what interests their subscribers, then they are better able to serve them.

However, some organizations go further and use tracking images that individually identify their recipients so that their sales team can tell specifically who has read their email, how many times, at what time of day, and on what device. Then they know who to contact, who’s already interested, and who is a cold call.

Fastmail has always defended you from spy pixels

At Fastmail, we know that any image fetched when displaying an email can be used to monitor you. We put you in control of managing how to handle remote images. We’ve been protecting you from this practice for over 15 years.

When reading your mail through your web browser, or on mobile with our Fastmail apps, you can choose whose images you want to load by adjusting settings in your Privacy settings:

  • Always ask before loading remote images: Remote images are always blocked but you can load them as you need to.
  • Show remote images from senders in my contacts, otherwise ask: If you know the sender, we’ll load the images, otherwise images are blocked by default.
  • Show remote images: Images are always loaded.

Your location always stays private

Should you choose to load those remote images, we load them via our server, not from your client. This means the sender only knows our server information and location, and not yours.

We block all remote images rather than guess at which particular ones might be used for spying, because any image can be used as a spy pixel. Rather than providing you with a false sense of security thinking we have blocked all spy pixels (and only the spy pixels) when we might have detected them incorrectly, we let you control how images are handled, based on your relationship with the sender.

Note: Location protection for remote images works on our website and our apps. If you use a third party client or program to read your mail, we can’t intercept these images. Check out this guide to disabling tracking pixels in some common clients.*

Protect yourself from invasive marketing by:

  1. Generous use of the ‘unsubscribe’ button on mailing lists if you no longer want to hear from them, or disagree with their tracking behaviours.
  2. Get rid of spam. Spam is mail that doesn’t have an unsubscribe link (or one that does not actually remove you from their list), in which case use our keyboard shortcut of “!” to report spam.
  3. Use email aliases any time you give out an email address to a company and not an individual. Using an alias lets you easily block email if you don’t want to hear from that sender any more, or discover they have sold or leaked your data. Fastmail lets you have over 600 email aliases at no extra cost.

If you’d like to help friends and family get protected from spy pixels, with a company that respects your privacy and the way you choose to work, share your referral link to give them a discount. If you’re new to Fastmail, try it today with our 30-day free trial!

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