Images in email: Are you now safe from the hidden tracking pixel?

How do you deal with images in the email that you receive?

If you’re like me and most people I know, the default setting in your email software is not to show images from all and sundry, only from those senders who you trust and who you’ve added to a whitelist where you’ve chosen to let email from them include and display images.

The main reason you do this is usually as part of the steps you take to be secure online and prevent the bad guys out there from using images to introduce nasty stuff onto your computer or mobile device.

A close-second reason is to stop email marketers bloating your inbox with messages that often contain almost nothing but images, with text that often only says something like “Click here if you can’t read this email” (as if you’ll click!), such as the example above.

Clumsy workarounds like this could become a thing of the past if you use Gmail now that Google has introduced a method that lets you see images in messages by default that appears not to disclose anything about you and what you’re doing (eg, opening the message) to the sender of the email.

In an announcement yesterday, Google says that instead of serving images directly from their original external host servers, Gmail will now serve all images through Google’s own secure proxy servers.

[…] So what does this mean for you? Simple: your messages are more safe and secure, your images are checked for known viruses or malware, and you’ll never have to press that pesky “display images below” link again. With this new change, your email will now be safer, faster and more beautiful than ever.

What does it mean for email marketers, though? What about the hidden tracking pixel that tracks email and recipient behaviour with it? Will it mean that marketers can no longer track you and what you do with their email?

Good questions – and confusing answers:

[…] E-mail marketers will no longer be able to get any information from images—they will see a single request from Google, which will then be used to send the image out to all Gmail users. Unless you click on a link, marketers will have no idea the e-mail has been seen. While this means improved privacy from e-mail marketers, Google will now be digging deeper than ever into your e-mails and literally modifying the contents. If you were worried about e-mail scanning, this may take things a step further. However, if you don’t like the idea of cached images, you can turn it off in the settings. – Gmail blows up e-mail marketing by caching all images on Google servers (Ars Technica, Dec 12).

[…] Email messages are, by and large, pretty static. Once they’re sent, they’re fixed. The one exception is the images, which are downloaded when the recipient reads the message. As that happens, a treasure trove of information is shared with the image host. Many enterprising companies including ESPs, MovableInk, ReturnPath, Litmus and AudiencePoint use that data in a variety of ways. By switching to caching the images, Google has caused that source of information to largely dry up. – Google Quietly Updates Gmail to Cache Images: Impact for Email Marketers (ClickZ, Dec 12).

[…] Beware: Google just made it easier for people to know if you’re opening their email messages. […] Images embedded in emails will now be automatically displayed, saving users from clicking on a “display images” link and, Google claims, making “your messages more safe and secure.” But buried in the fine print, a different picture emerges. The new setup also means that people and companies who send you email will be able to find out when you’ve opened and read their messages, because loading these images requires a call back to the sender’s server. That said, the sender still has to know how to rig their emails to take advantage of this, and that means that sophisticated corporations are far more likely to take advantage of this privacy hole than your friends and relatives. They’ll have to evade Google’s filters for “suspicious” content, and you’ll have to check your Gmail over the web – not via a local client – for this change to impact you. But it’s an important development. – With the New Gmail, People Will Know When You Open That Message (Wired, Dec 12).

Probably prudent to keep a manual eye on your image-display settings in your email software, whether Gmail or other client, at least for a while longer.

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