Tracking Pixels Security: the Debate Marketers Face

June 4th, 2024 | By Joyrene Thomas | 10 min read

It’s been dubbed a battle between tracking pixels and privacy—one where marketers face off against privacy advocates. Tracking pixels can help marketers improve the effectiveness of their campaigns. But at the same time privacy regulations have created stricter rules around online tracking technology.

How can businesses balance the need to gather information about online user behavior to drive effective marketing with data privacy and cybersecurity requirements?

In this article, we look at:

  • What are tracking pixels?

  • How does a tracking pixel work?

  • What is the difference between a tracking pixel and a cookie?

  • Why do marketers use tracking pixels?

  • What are the security implications of tracking pixels?

  • What are the regulations around tracking pixels?

  • How do businesses manage the risks inherent to tracking pixels?

  • How can Jscrambler help protect your business?

Tracking pixel security: what are pixels?

Ever been followed around the web by something you nearly bought? Every website you visit then shows ads for precisely that almost-purchase. But how do those websites know you put the item in your online shopping cart but didn’t check it?

The answer lies in a tiny digital tool called a tracking pixel. Measuring around 1x1 pixel in size, this tracking pixel is embedded in web pages, e-mails, or adverts. Its job is to collect information about the user and send it back to a server.

This allows marketers, website owners, and advertisers to gather valuable information, including the following:

  • User’s IP address

  • The device, browser, and operating system used

  • Actions users take on a web page e.g. signing up for a newsletter

How does a tracking pixel work?

The website operator or e-mail sender adds the tracking pixel using a small piece of HTML or JavaScript code. This has an external link to the pixel server. 

So, when the user visits the target website or opens the e-mail, their browser automatically runs the tracking pixel code. This then sends back information about the user’s location, device, operating systems, and so on. 

In the case of e-mails, tracking pixel codes send information about the open rate of e-mails or e-newsletters and measure the click-through rates of advertising offers.

What is the difference between a tracking pixel and a cookie?

Tracking pixels and cookies both collect user data but in different ways. 

Tracking pixels are embedded in content. They monitor interactions and gather data, sending it back when content is accessed. The scope of tracking is specific to the context in which the pixel is embedded. 

Cookies are stored on the user’s devices. They store user data and preferences over multiple sessions and interactions, for example, enabling a returning user to visit a website without logging in again. Cookies track user behavior across various web pages or sites. 

Users can easily delete or block cookies via browser settings, unlike tracking pixels which are invisible to the naked eye and difficult to detect without specialized tools.

Why do marketers use tracking pixels?

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Nineteenth-century department store owner and marketing pioneer John Wanamaker is alleged to have said that. But this was before the age of tracking pixels.

Marketers can now use tracking pixels to devise marketing strategies, measure their effectiveness, and iterate as they go to increase their likelihood of success. For example, gather data on user behavior to deliver personalized content, more relevant ads, optimized re-targeting campaigns, and boost sales conversion. 

Tracking pixels can also be used to differentiate between users and bots. Plus track e-mail open rates to run A/B tests on different headlines, offers, content, and so on.

What are the security implications of tracking pixels?

Tracking pixels do just that: they track users. The technology itself is morally neutral. It can be used for good and for ill. So, just as marketers can use tracking pixels to meet business goals, so can cybercriminals. 

A misconfigured pixel could send personal information to an unauthorized third-party server, allowing the controller of that server to steal private data from users. Tracking pixels can also be used in phishing campaigns, enabling hackers to gather information on their targets.

Legitimate businesses also run the risk of collecting data without the knowledge or consent of users, thus infringing their privacy.

What are the regulations around tracking pixels?

The rules governing the use of online tracking technology, including tracking pixels, vary significantly from country to country.

For example, in the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) 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.

The GDPR defines ‘personal data’ as any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person. And highlights the condition for the lawful processing of personal data, including obtaining consent from the individual.

Website owners who use tracking pixels must comply with the GDPR on data protection, which includes obtaining explicit consent from individuals. Also, being transparent about data collection and processing practices, and ensuring the security of personal data. Other jurisdictions have similar data protection and privacy legislation. 

Specific industries also have applicable rules, such as US entities regulated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Or those that store, process, or transmit sensitive cardholder data, which fall within the scope of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards, or PCI DSS.

How do businesses manage the risks inherent to tracking pixels?

Businesses can safeguard their users’ privacy and data security without compromising the marketing experience in various ways. For example:

  • Publishing a privacy policy

  • Providing opt-out options

  • Using consent pop-ups and obtaining user consent

  • Limiting third-party tracking

Businesses are also advised to develop a governance plan to reduce and mitigate the impact of tracking pixels. Businesses increasingly depend on third-party vendors to provide services, who themselves can be a source of risk for third-party data breaches.

Managing the risks inherent to tracking pixels may start with a third-party risk assessment. Which vendors and scripts are running on your websites, and what data are they touching in every user session?

Depending on the outcome of this assessment, businesses can devise measures to prevent access and data transfer via pixels and scripts. They can deploy appropriate workflows to enable internal teams, such as development and marketing, to add scripts to web pages, without them posing security risks. 

Businesses can also improve their reporting and remediation capabilities, so they can easily address issues identified.

How can Jscrambler help protect your business?

Jscrambler’s Webpage Integrity product detects and controls script misbehavior on the client side.

Continuous monitoring gathers information on all user sessions, so businesses know which vendors and scripts are present on their website and can attribute risk levels to each vendor. 

Businesses can also control how all first- and third-party scripts behave by enforcing comprehensive rules that manage access to forms and sensitive data. This includes blocking unauthorized access to data entered into forms, transferred to external servers, etc.

Jscrambler’s Webpage Integrity helps businesses comply with data protection standards, regulations, and laws, such as GDPR, CCPA, HIPAA, and PCI DSS v4.

Add two lines of code to start protecting your website today. Get a free trial or book a demo with our client-side security experts.


The leader in client-side Web security. With Jscrambler, JavaScript applications become self-defensive and capable of detecting and blocking client-side attacks like Magecart.

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