How to stop people tracking whether you've opened their email

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer
Gmail and other email clients allow people to use extensions and other services to track emails. (Gmail)

People have all sorts of reasons for using email trackers. Some people using trackers, which let the sender see when the recipient opened their email, for professional reasons: you want to see whether a business contact just hasn’t gotten around to checking their email or is ignoring you. It’s pretty common for sales, marketing, and public relations professionals to use trackers.

Others use it for personal reasons or just curiosity. Read receipts are standard on texting apps like iMessage and WhatsApp, so knowing when your messages have been read (and how many times) is a feature that some people like. But unlike those platforms, it’s not easy to opt out when it comes to email.

A screenshot from HubSpot’s promo page showing it’s tracking interface. (Yahoo Finance)

This doesn’t just have the potential to catch you in an uncomfortable white lie. (“No I haven’t read your message yet.” “I have the receipts, you’ve opened it four times.”) It also has the potential to be a privacy and security risk, as Brian Merchant detailed in Wired, because trackers can give clients more information than simply that their message was read.

Some trackers can even obtain people’s IP addresses and pinpoint locations with accuracy, and this isn’t something that most people realize — even people who should take precautions. During the 2016 presidential election, Merchant wrote, a security researcher sent emails with trackers to senators and people running for president, and found they didn’t have any anti-tracking. It was very easy to see the politicians’ locations, down to specific hotels.

However, there is an easy way to avoid being tracked. Email trackers, like HubSpot’s tracker for sales people, work by embedding a tiny 1×1 image — just a pixel — into an email. When the email is opened, the email client loads the image and the tracker notices and sends a notification.

Getting around this is very simple. You just stop photos from automatically loading.

To turn them off in Gmail, simply go to Settings → General, and the fourth item allows you to toggle off automatic image loading. When off, you will be asked if you want images to load. If you know a person won’t track you or don’t care, you can allow images to always load for that individual email address.

In Yahoo mail, you can access this setting in Settings → Security. Most email clients make it easy to do this.

Testing this simple workaround with a HubSpot’s widely-used email tracker worked well, and is a simple way to get some privacy back and get out of uncomfortable situations.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Confidential tip line: FinanceTips[at]oath[.com].

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