David Heinemeier Hansson

June 8, 2021

Email spy pixels are dead now that Apple will follow HEY

There's no advocacy as effective as competition. I could have yelled and screamed about email spy pixels till I was blue in the face, but it was building a serious set of defenses into HEY that turned the argument into action. And now the entire email tracking industry is about to be turned upside down, as Apple has announced they'll follow our lead, and block those abusive little beacons this Fall. Bam.

That's what we learned at WWDC yesterday. iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey will all feature a new version of Apple's own Mail app that, just like HEY, can block email spy pixels, as well as route requests through a proxy to prevent leaking your IP address. Unfortunately, it sounds like Apple is going to make this new protection opt-in, but hopefully they'll present the option when they detect a spy pixel, just like HEY, not just hide it in some obscure settings panel somewhere.


Either way, and given Apple's monopoly advantage with their preinstalled Mail app, we don't need much of an uptake from what they're calling Mail Privacy Protection to break the dam on spy pixels. You can't really say anything authoritatively about open rates if 5-10-30-50% of your recipients are protected against snooping, as you won't know whether that's why your spy pixel isn't tripping, or it's because they're just not opening your email.

There's also simply no way users are going to willingly accept the premise of spy pixels if Apple presents the privacy dangers as clearly and as honestly as we've done in HEY. Apple already showed that with their drive to block unique ad identifiers for cross-app tracking in iOS 14.5: 96% of users in the US have declined to let apps track them like that! And email spy pixels are far worse and much creepier.

It's going to be really interesting to see how long it takes the email tracking industry to adapt. I guess they'll probably cling to the wishful thinking that carried Facebook and other tracking giants until reality of Apple's App Tracking Transparency change provided the hard wall. People really do not like being tracked in everything they do online, and given the choice, will absolutely block it. But hopefully the smart providers will see the writing on the wall, and voluntarily cut the crap on spy pixels.

It's also fun to think about the fact that this most likely would never have happened if Apple had been successful killing HEY last year. Apple hadn't bothered to do anything about spy pixels over the past decade, but when we brought the issue to the forefront, and it was written up by the likes of the BBC, they felt forced to follow suit.

This is what the big fish like Apple never seem to be able to internalize. That they need a rich ecosystem of small fish to push new ideas forward. That if they eat or starve us all, they might get the whole pond to themselves, but it'll be an awfully stale one.

Anyway, regardless of the antitrust implications here, this is good. HEY's implementation may be more sophisticated, may have been earlier, but a niche player like us were never going to be able to turn the game upside down with a single shot like Apple can.

Goodbye spy pixels, you won't be missed!


About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.