Stopping trackers in their tracks

The trackers come in many forms, like an invisible piece of software inserted into an email or a hyperlink embedded inside text

Brian X. Chen

Brian X. Chen, a consumer technology writer at the The New York Times, writes in to explain ways that emails can identify when and where you click, and how to dial back the tracking.

Google’s Gmail is so popular in large part because its artificial intelligence is effective at filtering out spam. But it does little to combat another nuisance: email tracking.

The trackers come in many forms, like an invisible piece of software inserted into an email or a hyperlink embedded inside text. They are frequently used to detect when someone opens an email and even a person’s location when the message is opened.

When used legitimately, email trackers help businesses determine what types of marketing messages to send to you, and how frequently to communicate with you. This emailed newsletter has some trackers as well to help us gain insight into the topics you like to read about, among other metrics.

But from a privacy perspective, email tracking may feel unfair. You didn’t opt in to being tracked, and there’s no simple way to opt out.

Fortunately, many email trackers can be thwarted by disabling images from automatically loading in Gmail messages. Here’s how to do that:

Inside, look in the upper right corner for the icon of a gear, click on it, and choose the “Settings” option.
In the settings window, scroll down to “Images.” Select “Ask before displaying external images.”

With this setting enabled, you can prevent tracking software from loading automatically. If you choose, you can agree to load the images. This won’t stop all email tracking, but it’s better than nothing.

Bonus tech tip! Some readers asked for more help setting up notifications that can alert you to fraudulent credit card charges. Signing up for these is not easy because, let’s face it, financial websites are not the simplest to use.

On the apps and websites for the credit cards I have, I found these alerts in menus labeled “Profile and Settings” or “Help & Support.” Look for “Alerts” or dig into the privacy and security options. Sign up for an email or app notification each time your card is used to make a purchase online and over the phone.

Most of the time, those purchases are from you. But you want to know right away in the (hopefully) rare times when they’re not.

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