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Tracking Pixels: Harmless Marketing Tools or Invasive Online Voyeurs?

Updated: May 10

A man using a smartphone.
Learn more about tracking pixels and what you can do to disable them across your mail programs and internet browsers.

Have you ever checked out a topic on a website, and later received ads for that same topic?

Chances are a tracking pixel (also known as a marketing pixel) recorded who you are and what topic you were checking out. Webpages and emails can be digitally tagged using a 1 pixel by 1 pixel sized graphic, often camouflaged as the same color as a webpage’s background. These tags are small and often overlooked.[4]

What Does a Tracking Pixel Do?

When a user visits a website, a tracking pixel uses the web browser to send data to

wherever it is programed to. Pixel tracking is often used for marketing purposes,

but it can be used for nefarious means such as recording user health information.

Tracking pixels are also often backed with JavaScript webpage code that can extract

data from the user’s browser or device.

Tracking pixels can send the following data:

  • Operating system used (gives information on the use of mobile devices)

  • Type of website or email used (e.g., whether the user was on mobile or desktop)

  • Type of client used (e.g., a browser or mail program)

  • Client’s screen resolution

  • Time the website was visited or email was read

  • The website the user visited

  • Activities on the website during a session (when using multiple tracking pixels)

  • IP address (gives information about the user’s Internet Service Provider and location)

  • Visits, clicks, and other digital behaviors

Google Analytics and Facebook are two examples of common pixel tracking entities, but there are several types of pixels that can be used:

Retargeting Pixel

Used by digital marketers, these pixels track use behavior on websites. This is how a business ad can follow you from one website to another.

They can be used for suggested marketing to improve user experience and can identify a user’s social media profile based on their email address.

Conversion Pixel

Conversion pixels are triggered once an online purchase has been made. They can track

sales made from an ad campaign and provide valuable market information to sellers on

their marketing performance.

Google Analytics Pixel

Placed in a webpage banner, a Google Analytics pixel captures web traffic analytics that

are used by marketers.

Facebook Pixel

A Facebook pixel is a tool used by organizations that use Facebook ads. Facebook pixels

can track Facebook ad conversions, build a target audience, optimize ads, and remarket

to a website’s visitors.

What's the Difference Between a Tracking Pixel and a Cookie?

Tracking pixels are different from cookies, but both are often used together to capture online behavior.[2]

Cookies are files dropped on computers that can follow the user across websites. Cookies cannot follow the user across devices. A cookie dropped on your personal computer will not know what websites you have visited on your mobile phone.

Tracking pixels, conversely, are located on the website itself and can identify you across devices.

The Problem With Tracking Pixels

Data privacy is the main concern with tracking pixels because they can be used by

criminals and online predators to identify possible victims.

Personal data such as healthcare information can be divulged from tracking pixels. In some instances, hospital websites have tracking pixels in place for website use optimization; however, pixels could report what users were accessing at the hospital website and could divulge their private health information.[1]

In 2023, the FTC enforced a penalty on an online prescription drug discount provider who used tracking pixels on drug coupons.[5] In this case, prescription and personal health information was sent to Google Analytics, Facebook, and other companies.[6] For example, users who purchased certain prescriptions were then sent related ads on Facebook.

To compound the issue, the discount drug retailer uploaded email addresses and phone numbers to Facebook to align tracking pixel data to their social profile to better target their advertising.

Minimize the Risk of Tracking Pixels

There is no universal block available. Users need to adjust settings on each device, each email application, and each browser to block pixel trackers.

Outlook 365

Open your email, click on File, then click on Options. When the Outlook Options window appears, you will need to click on Trust Center and then click on the Trust Center Settings button.

Under the Automatic Download tab, make sure that you check the boxes next to the options Don’t download pictures automatically in standard HTML email messages or RSS items and Don’t download pictures in encrypted or signed HTML email messages.

Apple Mail

To turn off pixel tracking in Apple Mail, navigate to your mail program. Then, open the Preferences tab. Once you have done that, click on the Viewing tab and uncheck the box next to Load remote content in messages.


To turn off the tracking and automatic downloads in your Gmail account, open your browser and log in to your Gmail account. Click on Settings (the gear-shaped icon) in the top right hand corner of your screen and then select See all settings.

In the window that opens, make sure you are on the General tab and scroll down to Images. Select Ask before displaying external images.

Yahoo Mail

If you are using Yahoo! Mail, log in to your account, then right-click on the gear shaped icon in the upper right-hand corner of your screen. Click on More Settings and then select the Viewing Email option.

Underneath the menu that says Show images in messages, select the option Ask before showing external images.

Microsoft Edge

In Microsoft Edge, select Settings and navigate to Settings > Privacy, search, and services. Verify that Tracking prevention is on. Select the level of tracking prevention that is right for you.[3]

Google Chrome

PixelBlock is a Chrome browser extension that will block tracking pixels for you.

Final Thoughts

Tracking pixels can benefit the online shopping experience, and certainly benefit online marketers and marketing analytic data providers. If users are concerned with privacy, they have methods available (albeit decentralized) to block tracking pixels.

Another option for blocking tracking pixels is to use a personal VPN when connecting to the Internet, because tracking pixels will then mostly report incorrect data to the recipient tracking server.


  1. “54,000 patients affected by pixel trackin…” Becker’s Hospital Review. 31 March 2023

  2. “What is a Tracking Pixel?” CookiePro. 17 September 2021

  3. “Learn about tracking prevention in Microsoft Edge” Microsoft.

  4. “Tracking Pixel” Ryte Wiki.

  5. “Lurking Beneath the Surface: Hidden I…” Federal Trade Commission. 16 March 2023

  6. “FTC Enforcement Action to Bar Good…” Federal Trade Commission. 1 February 2023


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