How to protect online privacy in the age of pixel trackers

Tracking pixels like the Meta and TikTok pixels are popular tools for online businesses to monitor their website visitors’ behaviors and preferences, but they do come with risks. While pixel technology has been around for years, privacy regulations such as CCPA and GDPR have created new, much stricter rules, making the practice of data harvesting through a tracking pixel highly controversial. Tracking pixels on your website means that website owners are considered data controllers and are held accountable for any data breaches they may cause, making pixel security a top business priority.

tracking pixels

What is a tracking pixel?

Have you ever clicked on an ad, been taken to the vendor’s website, but then decided not to buy anything? The ad you saw a little later from the same vendor offering you some tempting, limited-time offer was made possible by a tracking pixel.

A tracking pixel is a small, transparent image or a snippet of code that is embedded in an HTML page. When a user visits the website, their web browser downloads the HTML code and displays the website, which includes the tracking pixel. Note that in most cases the pixel itself is hosted on a different server than the web page, allowing the server to collect data about the user’s behavior and preferences, mostly without their knowledge.

Users won’t notice a tracking pixel, but it harvests important information about their behaviors that savvy marketers can use to optimize retargeting campaigns, deliver more relevant ads, offer better website experiences, boost conversions, and more.

What are the risks?

Stricter privacy regulations, such as GDPR and CCPA, have presented new challenges for online businesses in recent years. Tracking pixels, which are designed to collect user data surreptitiously, can lead to violations of these regulations and collisions with privacy laws.

The most pressing risk associated with tracking pixels is the potential compromise of users’ data. A rogue or misconfigured pixel can send personal data to an unauthorized third-party server, effectively stealing private information from users. This can be a significant problem, as website owners can be held accountable for any data breaches caused by the pixels they host, despite being created and managed by third parties such as Google, Meta, and TikTok.

Legislation such as GDPR in Europe includes several provisions that are relevant to tracking pixels. For example, Article 4 of the GDPR defines personal data as “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person”, and Article 6 outlines the conditions for the lawful processing of personal data, including obtaining consent from the individual. Therefore, website owners who use tracking pixels must comply with the GDPR’s provisions on data protection, including obtaining explicit consent from individuals, providing transparency about data collection and processing practices, and ensuring the security of personal data.

Similar legislation exists worldwide, and additional rules in some regions cover specific industries too, like HIPAA which covers patients’ private health information.

If tracking pixels gather content about your customers from your website then you run the risk of being held responsible if that data is shared without the owner’s permission or is misused.

If pixel security fails, the damage to your business could be significant. A data protection authority may impose a substantial fine, and negative publicity could harm your business’s reputation and profitability. Additionally, website owners may face legal action from individuals or groups seeking redress through the courts.

The consequences of poor pixel security

These aren’t theoretical worries. There have already been cases where companies trusted third-party tracking pixels that strayed beyond their remit. For instance, in 2022, Boston-based Mass General Brigham, a non-profit hospital and physician network paid $18.4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit resulting from breaches by Meta pixel. The software used “cookies, pixels, website analytics tools, and associated technologies” on several websites, and they harvested personal information without first obtaining the users’ consent.

Tax preparation companies H&R Block, TaxAct, and TaxSlayer advertise on Facebook, so they use the Meta pixel to track ad performance. Unfortunately, towards the end of 2022 users’ data was compromised when the Meta pixel was found to have been sending sensitive financial and contact information to an unauthorized third-party server. Some of it included income data, filing statuses, and even details about college tuition grants for users’ kids.

Once again, the potential for punitive legal action and reputation damage looms large, not to mention fines. When you consider that Amazon was fined $746 million in 2021 for a GDPR breach involving failure to obtain cookie consent, it becomes clear that pixel security has to be one of your top business priorities.

Real-world case study: The TikTok pixel misconfiguration

This may all seem a bit hopeless, but it isn’t. Watertight pixel security is well within the capabilities of modern monitoring systems. With that in mind, Reflectiz recently published a case study to illustrate what can and should happen when a company experiences a pixel security incident.

In this case study, a large financial service company had moved its services online and begun to focus on the younger Gen Z market segment, placing ads on TikTok. Reflectiz’s continuous monitoring platform detected that the TikTok pixel script was accessing sensitive input data on one of the login forms on the company’s website. It appeared that TikTok had updated its pixel, and the new version had been accessing users’ personal information and transmitting it to their servers.

The Reflectiz solution detected the rogue pixel right away, reporting that it was tracking users’ activity without their consent and sending the information to an unauthorized third-party TikTok server. Reflectiz’s investigation team then forwarded detailed information about the pixel code change to the company right away. It also passed on clear mitigation steps on how to terminate the pixel’s unapproved activities, avoiding any chance of a costly pixel security data breach.

Tracking pixel technology is essential for optimizing online marketing efforts, but it also poses risks that online businesses can’t ignore. Stricter privacy laws have increased the risk of privacy violations, which can lead to fines and damage to the brand. To avoid these risks, online businesses should implement advanced monitoring solutions like Reflectiz to ensure their website remains free from costly privacy issues.

If you’re concerned about pixel security, learn more about Reflectiz’s monitoring solutions. Book a demo with Reflectiz today!

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