The IPKat frequently receives (and indeed, it seems, sends) emails that contain pictures. As a user of Microsoft Outlook, the IPKat generally finds when he opens his emails that the pictures are not actually displayed. Instead, there's a little box that contains the following text:
"Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the internet".
That seems very nice but what, the IPKat wants to know, does this have to do with privacy? If anything invades the recipient's privacy, it's the arrival of an unsolicited email as such, not the appearance of a picture. And how does the fact that the picture is not automatically downloaded protect his privacy? It's not as if the downloading of the picture enables the sender to see the recipient, or anything like that, is it? Or is this a proposition of US law that is meaningful on one side of the Atlantic but a little perplexing on the other?

Answers, please, by comment below or by email here.
PRIVACY PUZZLE FOR THE PUSS ... PRIVACY PUZZLE FOR THE PUSS ... Reviewed by Jeremy on Wednesday, September 28, 2005 Rating: 5


  1. I think the main risk that Outlook is trying to prevent is the secret inclusion of web bugs in the remote images that you view in HTML format email.

    In the images in the email, a 1x1 GIF pixel is installed which detects whether the email was opened, when you opened it, how often you opened it and the length of time you viewed the page. It’s a favourite trick of spammers to detect that the mail was sent to an active email address.

    How real the risk realy is, is unclear.

    Type ‘web bug’ into google for more information.

  2. If the 'image' is in fact a link to an image on the internet, it can be a privacy issue in spam or unsolicited emails. Scripts can be used to automatically generate a unique location for the same image for each email. This means that if a particular url is accessed, they can track that back to your email address, so they know it's a valid email address. Also, they can use your IP address from that to probably locate the town you're in, perhaps even more specific information.

    If the image is genuinely attached to the email, then it's not a privacy issue, just a bandwidth issue. You might not want to waste bandwidth on unwanted images, so it doesn't automatically download them.

  3. Thanks very much - both to Peter and Rich, who posted their comments here and to Guy and Christopher who sent emails along similar lines.

  4. The sites that are linked to on IPKat also quite often try to leave a cookie when the IPKat homepage is opened. The time spent hitting "always block" is a small price to pay I know...

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