What Is a Web Beacon and Why Should You Care?

If you’re concerned about internet tracking, you’ll want to know how web beacons affect you.
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Web beacons are tools used to track your internet journey for specific websites. You may have seen them referred to by another name, like web bugs, clear GIFs, or pixel tags. A website typically employs web beacons to count users or see how pages on the site have been accessed.

Interestingly, you cannot decline web beacons like you can decline tracking cookies. With all the data collection used today, you should know more about web beacons and how they collect your information. We’ll cover more about how they work, what they’re used for, and how you can block them with some of the best ad blockers available so you can prevent unnecessary data tracking when browsing the internet.

In this article
What is a web beacon?
How do web beacons work?
What are web beacons used for?
Web beacon privacy concerns
3 ways to block web beacons
Web beacons FAQs
Bottom line

What is a web beacon?

A web beacon may sound like something from the latest Star Wars installment, but it’s a genuine file used to monitor your website activity. A web beacon can be known by many names. You may see them called tracking pixels, spy pixels, or web bugs. These are files that monitor your activity on a website to build analytical reports. Web beacons are used to track user behavior, like the content they interact with or emails they open.

If you’ve ever felt like someone or something was tracking you across the internet, you may be right. Not to be a voice of doom here, but internet trackers are everywhere. Think of the last time you surfed online without any ads popping up. It may take a while to remember because cookies and web beacons are always ready to track your internet activities.

Web beacons help companies follow your online journey. For instance, a website may use a web beacon to count users on the network. It could make your future visits more tailored to your needs. They can also track how successful an ad campaign has been by monitoring the online impressions.

How do web beacons work?

Web beacons work similarly to internet cookies. A graphic image or HTML element loads from an external source to a web page. It’s not visible to the human eye, so it won’t interfere with your internet browsing. A web beacon is sometimes known as a spy pixel because it’s so small that it’s nearly invisible. It’s embedded coding used for tracking.

When a page is opened on a website, the beacon’s web server receives a request, and the code is sent or a clear image gets uploaded to your device or email message. Then the file tracks how you navigate your online browsing. It’s very similar to spyware, but much less intrusive.

Email beacons work the same way. These are also invisible images that get placed inside the email body without interrupting your communications. Email marketing companies want to know if you opened their emails, and the email web beacons will deliver that information. It also lets these businesses know when you opened the mail and can get your IP address.

What are web beacons used for?

If you’re concerned about your data privacy, you should know there are valid uses for web beacons. Beacons provide web analytics for websites and blogs that track how many people have viewed your site and user activity. This data can include what pages were visited the most, what areas on the page got the most attention, and where people tried to click.

Web beacons not only count the users who interact on a website but also show what visitors find most interesting and useful. This is a handy tool because it shows what does and doesn’t work, so website owners can improve the user experience or provide more relevant content. Web beacons can also be used as watermarks to track illegal content use.

Some people may feel web beacons are a privacy issue because they’re used for monitoring purposes. It may not be there to do any harm, but ultimately, it’s there to notate your online activities. Web beacons also help marketing companies know when you’ve opened an email. They can sometimes be used by spammers to confirm an email address is valid, and once you open an email, the web beacon sends that information back to the sender.

Are web beacons used to monitor web traffic? 

Yes, web beacons are used to monitor how you interact with a website or multiple websites. That may cause privacy concerns because it tracks your activity.

Web beacon privacy concerns

There are no laws prohibiting web beacons in the United States, which can be concerning news if you are worried about your data privacy. Marketing campaigns depend on these tracking methods to monitor company emails. These tiny files are a way to know if your email address is valid and once the company sees that it is, they’re ready to send you lots of spam.

You also won’t be notified of a web beacon’s presence, like you often are with internet cookies. Web beacons aren’t usually noticed because they’re so small, so you don’t realize you’re being tracked. You might not know your IP address has been captured by a company you barely know. Some web beacons are up to mischief.

If you don’t think this is a reason to be a bit concerned, consider the risks associated with your private information getting leaked to the public. This has happened before to millions of users and can happen again.

The social media giant Facebook had a data breach in 2018 where millions of user data profiles were leaked. That’s only one site of many that have lost user data over the past decade. Businesses aren’t the only entities that can use web beacons. Cybercriminals could use them for targeted email attacks.

3 ways to block web beacons

1. Use a VPN

Since web beacons can use your IP address, hiding your address with a virtual private network (VPN) makes tracking you much harder. The best VPNs come equipped with ad- and tracker-blocking features that also remove those pesky pop-ups from your browsing experience. Here are the top three we recommend after rigorous hands-on testing:

1. NordVPN: Equipped with Threat Protection, NordVPN not only masks your IP address but also blocks ads, trackers, and malware. We also love that Nord's MeshNet feature lets you stream Netflix shows from other countries—a definite bonus.

See NordVPN Plans | Read Our NordVPN Review | Read Our NordVPN Threat Protection Review

2. Surfshark: Similar to Proton and NordVPN, Surfshark comes equipped with CleanWeb, a malware, ad, and tracker blocker. You can buy CleanWeb as a standalone privacy tool or get it with Surfshark's VPN. We also recommend checking out Surfshark Antivirus, which we found did an excellent job protecting our device against malware during testing.

See Surfshark Plans | Read Our Surfshark Review | Read Our Surfshark CleanWeb Review

3. Proton VPN: You'll get access to NetShield with Proton VPN, which blocks malware, spyware, and malicious websites. Additionally, NetShield blocks ads and trackers like web beacons so you can breathe easy online.

Read Our Proton VPN Review | Read Our Proton VPN Netshield Review

Limited-time deal: 2 years of NordVPN with 68% off + 3 extra months
Learn More
On NordVPN's website

2. Block automatic image loading in email

Use the setting in your email that blocks image displays, since most of your emails will make perfect sense without images. Some email providers, like Microsoft Outlook, have this setting on by default.

3. Block web trackers

Some web browsers allow tracking protection on your desktop. Mozilla Firefox has Enhanced Tracking Protection that blocks trackers attempting to follow you and collect data while you’re online. There are also browser extensions and ad blockers that block web beacons, including these three that topped our best ad blockers list: 

1. Total Adblock: Created by the makers of TotalAV antivirus, Total Adblock offers one of the most hands-off ad-blocking experiences we've seen. Along with blocking ads on sites like Forbes (if you know, you know), Total Adblock cleaned ads off our YouTube videos as well. It also earned top privacy scores during our testing.

Get Total Adblock | Read Our Total Adblock Review

2. Ghostery: While it's not a great fit for Safari, Ghostery worked like a charm on our Chrome and Firefox browsers. It even blocked ads on YouTube, something not all ad blockers can do. We also liked that it includes private browsing tools.

Get Ghostery | Read Our Ghostery Review

3. 1Blocker: Are you an Apple fan? Then 1Blocker might be your jam. This iOS- and macOS-friendly ad blocker is built for Safari. We found it super simple to set up during our testing, and love that it has multiple customizations that allow you to block everything from ads to beacons—and even comments.

Get 1Blocker | Read Our 1Blocker Review

You should also clear your cookies, cache, and browser history to keep your online activity private. Learn how to clear cookies on Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers in our guide.

Learn More
On Total Adblock's website

Web beacons FAQs


What’s the difference between a cookie and a web beacon?

The difference between a cookie and a web beacon is a cookie is a text file that you can decline. A web beacon is a clear GIF file that can be used in combination with cookies, but it won’t give you the option to decline it.


What’s an example of a web beacon?

An example of a web beacon: a company owns multiple websites and uses a web beacon to track how users navigate among the different sites. The data can be used to make more efficient browsing changes.


Are web beacons legal?

Web beacons are legal, although they are concerning for some users, as they can interfere with certain levels of privacy. As of now, there is no prohibition under U.S. federal law regarding web beacons.

California residents may argue that the personal information tracked does fall under the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which considers personal information to be any data that can be linked to a consumer or household.

Bottom line

Web beacons are those tiny, image files hidden from view on websites and emails. Even though you can’t see them, these web beacons monitor your online activities to gain data regarding how you interact with websites while online.

Since these are another form of internet tracking, they carry some privacy concerns for users. If you don’t want more trackers following you around the internet, you should block web beacons whenever possible.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to do that is by using a VPN. The best VPN services will give you reliable, fast internet support while protecting your data and offering you the highest level of online privacy available. And if you prefer a more lightweight approach, try one of these top-rated ad blockers to keep trackers from logging your data.

Learn More
On Total Adblock's website

Author Details
Patti Croft is a freelance writer who specializes in all things technology. Her expertise includes antivirus software, online security strategies, and safety practices. She has a degree in Computer Information Systems and extensive experience working in the IT field. In her spare time, Patti is an avid reader and researcher, and loves spending time with her pets. She currently shares an office with her cat, Beau.