Google rolled out an update for the Gmail app on iOS this week that allows users to choose whether or not they want external images to load automatically when they open an email. This might not sound like a huge deal, but as former Twitter executive Mike Davidson revealed in a blog post back in July, attached images can double as email trackers, and some can even tell the sender exactly where you were when you opened the message.
As Davidson explained on his blog, a paid email service called Superhuman “decided to embed hidden tracking pixels inside of the emails its customers send out.” You won’t ever see these pixels, but if you open an email with one inside, the sender will be able to see exactly what time you opened the email and your location when you opened it. This will happen every time you open the email, so if you open it a few times over the course of a day, the sender will have access to a log of everywhere you went that day without your knowledge, which is truly terrifying.
The outrage that followed convinced Superhuman to remove location data from the feature it so innocuously called “Read Receipts” and turn it off by default for its customers. Nevertheless, the chain reaction of the blog post appears to have resulted in Google giving its users a way to fight back against the imperceptible tracking methods that some email services employ. Here’s how Google describes the new setting:
You can now choose to be asked before external images are displayed automatically.
To enable this for new incoming messages, go to Settings > specific account > Images and select Ask before displaying external images.
This setting was previously only available to desktop users, but now all iPhone and iPad owners can up their privacy game as well. As The Verge notes, the setting is accessible on personal Gmail accounts, but does not appear to have migrated to G Suite accounts quite yet. Hopefully Google will clarify that soon.