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'Spy pixels in emails have become endemic'

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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.
2021/02/17 14:14
Hey's review indicated that two-thirds of emails sent to its users' personal accounts contained a "spy pixel", even after excluding for spam.Its makers said that many of the largest brands used email pixels, with the exception of the "big tech" firms.
2021/02/17 14:14
Emails pixels can be used to log:if and when an email is openedhow many times it is openedwhat device or devices are involvedthe 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
2021/02/17 14:14
Recipients do not need to click on a link or do anything to activate them beyond open an email they are embedded in.British Airways, TalkTalk, Vodafone, Sainsbury's, Tesco, HSBC, Marks & Spencer, Asos and Unilever are among UK brands Hey detected to be using them.
2021/02/17 14:14
"It's not like there's a flag saying 'this email includes a spy pixel' in most email software," he added.Hey does offer such a facility, but users must pay an annual subscription.
2021/02/17 14:14
"On average, every Hey customer receives 24 emails per day that attempt to spy on them," Mr Hansson said."The top 10% of users receive more than 50. "We're processing over one million emails a day and we're just a tiny service compared to the likes of Gmail, but that's north of 600,000 spying attempts blocked every day."
2021/02/17 14:15
But a study by Princeton University also indicated the data gathered was sometimes linked to a users' cookies. This allows an individual's email address to be tied to their wider browsing habits, even as they move from one device to another. "The resulting links between identities and web history profiles belie the claim of 'anonymous' web tracking," the paper warned.In addition, trackers can also lead to personalised follow-ups.
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Use of tracking pixels is governed in the UK and other parts of Europe by 2003's Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (Pecr) and 2016's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).They require organisations to inform recipients of the pixels, and in most cases to obtain consent.
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"Solely placing something in a privacy notice is not consent, and it is hardly transparent," said Pat Walshe from Privacy Matters. "The fact that tracking will take place and what that involves should be put in the user's face and involve them opting in."The law is clear enough, what we need is regulatory enforcement. Just because this practice is widespread doesn't mean it's correct and acceptable."
2021/02/17 14:15
The watchdog told the BBC it was used to track email openings, but not users' locations, adding: "We're working with our provider to remove the pixel functionality and this should be completed soon."The BBC asked some of the companies identified by Hey for their own response.
2021/02/17 14:15