Tracking pixel security: data protection advocates vs. marketers
July 7th, 2023 | By Jscrambler | 18 min read
[under technical review]
The age of tracking pixel security is a vocal battle between digital marketers, data protection advocates, cybersecurity experts, and users.
How can businesses balance the need to gather information about user behavior and preferences on a website with data privacy, secure third-party ecosystems, and cybersecurity threats?
Privacy regulations such as GDPR and CCPA have created stricter rules for an online tracking technology that has been around for years: pixel technology.
Data harvesting through a tracking pixel became highly controversial.
Pixel data breaches became headlines worldwide.
Privacy regulation violations raise questions about how companies are managing sensitive data.
Online tracking technologies like Meta and TikTok pixels became popular tools for online businesses to track their website visitor’s preferences, conversions, consumer engagement, and behaviors.
How can enterprises protect online privacy without compromising the digital marketing demand for personal information in the era of tracking pixel security?
What is a Tracking Pixel?
This online tracking technology is a popular marketing tool that harvests information about users’ behaviors, preferences, and conversions. How do digital marketers use this information?
To provide better website experiences
Optimize retargeting campaigns
Deliver more relevant ads
Deliver personalized content
Side note: In most cases, users won’t notice a tracking pixel as they are on a different server than the web page, allowing it to collect data about the user’s preferences and behaviors.
Quick tracking pixel example
Have you visited an online store but decided not to buy anything, and after a while, you saw an ad on a social media channel from the same vendor? The ad might include a tempting campaign to remind you about the products you saw. It is a tracking pixel that makes this possible.
How does a Tracking Pixel work?
Here are the basics of how a tracking pixel works:
Short explanation: JS pixels are scripts that execute in the browser and send data through an HTTP request.
This HTML code has an external link to the pixel server. The user’s browser usually processes the HTML code when the individual visits the destination website.
The browser follows the link and opens the graphic registered and noted in the server’s log files.
With a tracking pixel, you can analyze several pieces of data, namely:
Type of website or email
Activities on the website during a session
IP address (it is possible to match it with other information on the Internet, e.g., a profile on a social network).
Tracking Pixel Security
Tracking pixels are designed for marketing teams to reach businesses' goals. Cybercrime also uses them for data collection.
The cyber risk associated with tracking pixels is the potential compromise and leakage of user data.
A misconfigured pixel can send personal information to an unauthorized third-party server, stealing private data from users. This data breach represents a big headache for companies.
Meta, TikTok, and Google are third-party services that create and manage tracking pixels. However, data leaks caused by these pixels mean providers and website owners are accountable for any risks and consequences.
Facing a tracking pixel security failure, reputational damage and revenue losses could be significant. Data protection authorities (DPA) may impose a substantial fine. Finally, website owners may face legal action.
What are the security issues with pixel tracking?
Pixel tracking can represent numerous security issues and concerns for enterprises and users, namely:
The risk of cyberattacks and data breaches increases when a company stores user data obtained through pixel tracking.
Invasion of Privacy
Before the Internet, and even at the beginning of the Internet Era and the Internet of Things, invasion of privacy was the unjustifiable intrusion into the personal life of another without consent, with intruders breaking into celebrities' homes, for example.
Pixel tracking may collect personal data without authorization, from device information to browsing history. Users are now more vulnerable to online threats, such as identity theft and the exposure of their private information.
Misuse of Personal Data
Usually, pixel tracking collects data without consent. Therefore, using this information for digital marketing campaigns and online advertising may be invasive and deceptive.
Privacy regulations, standards, and laws, such as GDPR, CCPA, and PCI DSS, create several compliance issues regarding tracking pixels, including JS pixels.
The compliance and privacy issues with tracking pixels are mainly related to the potential compromise of users’ data, as explained in the topic above.
However, these compliance issues depend on several factors and contexts, including the regulations on their own, for example, and the domestic countries of companies and their users.
Decreased website performance
The website page load time is an important SEO element. Using several pixels may slow it down.
Threat to cybersecurity
Tracking pixels can be used in phishing campaigns, allowing hackers to gather information on their targets.
Tracking Pixels and Privacy Regulations
GDPR and CCPA, as examples of privacy regulations, created new and stricter rules for online businesses. Tracking pixels can collide with privacy laws and violate these data regulations. They are illegal when they impermissibly disclose an individual's personal information.
Are tracking pixels GDPR-compliant?
For example, the GDPR in Europe includes provisions relevant to tracking pixels:
Article 4 of the GDPR defines personal data as any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person.
Article 6 highlights the conditions for the lawful processing of personal data, including obtaining consent from the individual.
Side note: The GDPR sets out detailed requirements for companies and organizations on collecting, storing, and managing personal data. It applies both to European organizations that process the personal data of individuals in the EU and to organizations outside the EU that target people living in the EU.
Thus, website owners who use tracking pixels must comply with the GDPR’s provisions on data protection, which include obtaining explicit consent from individuals, providing transparency about data collection and processing practices, and ensuring the security of personal data.
Similar privacy legislation exists worldwide, and additional rules in some regions cover specific industries, like HIPAA, related to patients’ private health information, and PCI DSS, the global security standard for all entities that store, process, or transmit cardholder data or sensitive authentication data.
If your website embeds tracking pixels, you are responsible if personal data is shared without the user’s permission or if it is misused. Protect the sensitive data of your visitors and gain visibility into third-party scripts.
Users must be able to object to the pixel tracking.
Examples and Consequences of Weak Tracking Pixel Security
H&R Block, TaxAct, and TaxSlayer
Three tax preparation companies use the Meta pixel to track and improve ad performance on Facebook. In 2022, the world discovered that the Meta Pixel had sent sensitive contact and financial information to an unaudited third-party server, compromising the user data of these tax companies.
Advocate Aurora Health (AAH)
A data breach affected over 3 million patients of this medical services provider serving the Wisconsin and Illinois populace. Cybersecurity Insiders revealed that the AAH websites had the Meta Pixel. Hackers used a vulnerability in the software tool to access information.
Side note: In June 2022, The Markup published a report stating that one-third of the top 100 US hospitals sent sensitive information to Facebook via website pixels.
Meta Pixel and Google Analytics are not compliant with GDPR.
The Austrian Data Protection Authority has found that Google Analytics and Meta Pixel directly violate GDPR, according to Termageddon.
Types of Tracking Pixels
Email Tracking Pixel
Email tracking pixels are usually placed at the top or bottom of an email and appear as a 1x1-pixel image.
Email pixels have several functions:
They measure the click-through rate of the advertising offer and the degree of interest among users.
They measure the open rate of the email or newsletter.
Meta Tracking Pixel: Facebook Tracking Pixel
It helps online advertisers deliver valuable ads to the appropriate targeted and segmented audience. The tracking and analytics tool is embedded on the website, health portals, and app pages, among others, in strategic locations, including submit form buttons and website headers.
Facebook has been removing features that use the pixel since 2021.
Meta Tracking Pixel: Instagram Tracking Pixel
Meta Pixel is a piece of code uploaded to a user's computer upon visiting a webpage that helps identify Instagram users and see how they interact with the content on your website (page views, adding to cart, purchases, among other information).
Meta's data is distributed in two major clusters: revenue-generating data (advertising-related data) and more costly data.
TikTok Tracking Pixel
The TikTok pixel is similar to the Meta Pixel. It is an HTML code snippet that tracks user behaviors, actions, and conversions across your website.
It uses data to track users and serve them relevant ads on TikTok based on how they interacted with your website.
Google Analytics Tracking Pixel
Google Analytics is a stack for digital marketing and numbers-oriented professionals. This tool uses tracking pixels to gather information and provide for user engagement and behavior.
Type of Tracking Pixel
Email tracking pixel
A small transparent image embedded in an email, either manually or through a sales or marketing tool.
Meta Pixel: Facebook tracking pixel
Meta Pixel: Instagram tracking pixel
Piece of code that helps identify Instagram users and see how they interact with the content on your website.
TikTok tracking pixel
Uses visitors' data to serve them relevant ads on TikTok based on how they interacted with your website.
Google Analytics tracking pixel
Also known as GA tracking code, it is a small snippet of code added to a website's HTML.
Side note: Is Threads, Facebook's new Twitter alternative, safe for digital privacy?
The new social media signed by Meta is not available in the European Union, which has tougher privacy standards and rules than the United States of America. The concerns with digital privacy grow as the number of people signing up for Threads grows.
Potentially collecting sensitive personal information about users, including browsing history, contacts, location, and financial data, Threads raises new questions.
However, Threads belong to Meta, meaning that a lot of their members may already belong to Facebook and Instagram. It is still too soon to have more detailed information about this topic. It's important to remain vigilant.
The Clash Between Digital Marketers and Data Protection Advocates
Data Protection Advocacy Perspective
Advocates for data protection often criticize tracking pixels because they collect information about the user, usually without their knowledge.
Additionally, considering tracking pixels are almost impossible to detect by the average user, this technology may transfer information without consent.
Spammers' work gets easier with tracking pixels. They can integrate tracking pixels into spam emails to understand if an email address is valid. If the recipient opens the email and loads the automated tracking pixel, the spammer receives a confirmation of the authenticity of the email address. Thus, the number of spam messages increases.
Digital Marketing Perspective and the Tracking Pixel Advantages
From website managers to SEO specialists, PPC operators, and email senders, everyone loves them.
The tracking technology allows them to generate and use information based on their digital visitors to improve marketing campaigns, enhance the user experience, and personalize offers for the most commonly used browser.
Finally, they make it possible to differentiate between users and bots.
How to balance data protection with better digital marketing experiences
The transition to a world concerned with privacy and security on the web is leading to a cookieless future and a stricter demand for tracking pixel behavior.
Tracking Pixels vs. Cookie Tracking
If there's a shift from using third-party cookies for different purposes, there’s also a concern with third-party providers and scripts.
Tracking pixels have similar functionalities as cookies. But common browsers can’t block pixels, making them an alternative to cookies.
Nowadays, there are already several security solutions that enable monitoring, blocking, and preventing the existence of log file analysis.
Companies can safeguard their user's privacy without sacrificing the marketing experience:
To give Opt-Out Options
Employ Consent Pop-Ups and Obtaining User Consent
Go with Alternative Advertising Methods
Limit Third-Party Tracking
Tracking Pixels and Cybersecurity Risk Assessment Tools
Drawing from all the security concerns that tracking pixels represent for companies, developing a governance plan allows for reducing the implementation of tracking in places where it is not supposed to be.
The governance plan must include legal, privacy, IT, and marketing departments. Cybersecurity risk assessment tools support the process.
But first, companies must be aware that they are using pixel-tracking or third-party tracking. To determine what tracking technologies are currently in use and identify security vulnerabilities, Jscrambler can help.
Tracking Pixel Security: How Can Jscrambler Help Protect Your Business?
Companies depend on third-party vendors to provide services. Therefore, these companies can be at risk for third-party data breaches. It is urgent to get visibility into third-party scrips.
Be aware of the impacts of third-party pixel tracking on your website and online store, from healthcare to gaming and banking web applications.
Meet security, privacy, governance, and compliance obligations around sensitive data and script behavior. The Ponomon Institute, which conducted a 2022 Data Risk in the Third-Party Ecosystem Study, shares actions to reduce the likelihood of a third-party data breach:
Create an inventory of all third parties you share information with and evaluate their security and privacy practices.
Conduct frequent reviews of third-party management policies and programs.
Study the causes and consequences of recent third-party breaches and incorporate the takeaways into your assessment processes.
Improve visibility into third-party scripts with whom you do not have a direct relationship.
Concerned with Tracking Pixel Security?
If you are concerned about tracking pixel security, learn more about our solutions, supported in three complementary phases:
Monitoring: gain awareness of client-side exposure and risks by understanding which vendors and scripts are on your website and gathering information on all user sessions.
Risk Mitigation: Get real-time visibility and control over the sensitive data being inserted on forms on your website. See which third-party vendors and scripts access and transfer sensitive data from your website. Define their access status and block unauthorized access.
Script Behavior Control: Gain granular control over first- and third-party scripts’ behavior. Block unauthorized behaviors, such as access to data inserted into forms and data transfers to external domains.
Book a call demo to see our product in action, or request a free inventory report for your website scripts.
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