How to protect online privacy in the age of pixel trackers

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

tracking pixels

What is a tracking pixel?

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

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

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

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What are the risks?

Stricter data protection regulations such as GDPR and CCPA have presented online businesses with new challenges in recent years. Tracking pixels designed to surreptitiously collect user data may violate these regulations and conflict with data protection laws.

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

Laws such as the GDPR in Europe contain several provisions 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 lawful processing of personal data, including obtaining the individual’s consent. Therefore, website owners using tracking pixels must comply with GDPR data protection requirements, including obtaining explicit consent from individuals, providing transparency about data collection and processing practices, and ensuring the security of personal data.

Similar laws exist around the world, and additional rules in some regions also apply to specific industries, such as automotive. B. HIPAA, which covers patients’ private health information.

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

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

The consequences of poor pixel security

These are not theoretical concerns. There have been cases where companies have relied on third-party tracking pixels beyond their remit. For example, in 2022, Boston-based Mass General Brigham, a nonprofit hospital and physician network, paid $18.4 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging metapixel violations. The software used “cookies, pixels, website analyzers, and related technologies” on multiple websites and collected personal information without first obtaining user consent.

Tax consulting firms 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 it was discovered that the meta-pixel was sending sensitive financial and contact information to an unauthorized third-party server. Some of these included income data, enrollment status, and even tuition details for users’ children.

Again, the potential for criminal prosecution and reputational damage is great, not to mention fines. When you consider that Amazon was fined $746 million in 2021 for a GDPR violation that involved failing to obtain consent to cookies, it’s clear that pixel security needs 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’s not. Waterproof pixel security is within the capabilities of modern surveillance systems. With that in mind, Reflectiz recently published a case study to illustrate what can and should happen when an organization experiences a pixel security incident.

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In this case study, a large financial services company had taken its services online and started to focus on the younger Gen Z market segment, placing ads on TikTok. Reflectiz’s continuous monitoring platform found that the TikTok pixel script accessed sensitive input data in one of the login forms on the company’s website. It appeared that TikTok had updated its Pixel and the new version had accessed users’ personal information and transferred it to their servers.

The Reflectiz solution immediately detected the rogue pixel and reported that it was tracking users’ activities without their consent, sending the information to an unauthorized third-party TikTok server. The Reflectiz investigation team promptly forwarded detailed information about the pixel code change to the company. It also passed on clear risk mitigation measures on how to stop the Pixel’s unauthorized activities to avoid any possibility of a costly Pixel security data breach.

Tracking pixel technology is essential for optimizing online marketing efforts, but it also comes with risks that online businesses cannot ignore. Stricter privacy laws have increased the risk of data breaches, which can result in fines and brand damage. To avoid these risks, online businesses should implement advanced monitoring solutions like Reflectiz to ensure their website stays free from costly privacy issues.

If you are concerned about pixel security, learn more about Reflectiz’ surveillance solutions. Book a demo with Reflectiz today!

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