At the end of last week Google announced that it will be making a change to how images are served to users of its popular Gmail email service.

The change means that external images will automatically be shown in emails after being downloaded from a Google proxy.

Until now, any images sent by unknown contacts were not automatically loaded by Gmail and the user had to “download images” for the email as below.

Gmail automatically blocks images

As you can see, the images haven’t been loaded as I haven’t certified the message as safe.

With the latest changes to Gmail these images will load automatically and the email will load normally.

 

Why did Google make the change?

The reason Google originally stopped the automatic download of images from unknown senders was to help combat malware and phishing scams.

So why change them back?

The new change is also intended to make emails safer from malware and scams, by hosting the images on Google proxy servers. This should ensure that the images do not contain malware or link to malicious sites.

Google explains:

“Gmail serves all images through Google’s image proxy servers and transcodes them before delivery to protect you in the following ways:

  • Senders can’t use image loading to get information like your IP address or location.
  • Senders can’t set or read cookies in your browser.
  • Gmail checks your images for known viruses or malware.”

 

What is the problem?

While images served by Google’s proxy servers may well be free from malware and have a low risk of being a scam, there are concerns that they will contain unique image links which will reveal whether an individual has opened an email and identify the email address as active.

As the images won’t be downloaded until the email is opened, it is possible to determine which email addresses are active as they have downloaded the images from the servers.

This will essentially enable what is known as “read tracking” for all Gmail users unless they disable the feature.

 

How can I turn it off?

While there are positives and negatives for having Gmail serve you images via their proxy servers, there is the option to make the choice for yourself.

Users can stop Gmail from automatically downloading the images in their emails in their Gmail Settings as follows:

Click the Cog at the top right of your Gmail window:

Select Settings from the dropdown menu

Gmail settings menu

 

Within image settings, select “Ask before displaying external images”

Gmail Image Display Settings

 

For more tips on how to take control of your privacy on the web, check out AVG PrivacyFix. PrivacyFix helps you control the amount you share on the web by making it easy to adjust security and privacy settings for accounts like LinkedIn, YouTube, Gmail and Facebook.

AVG PrivacyFix is available for free download on

PC from the PrivacyFix website

Mac from the App Store

Android: Google Play Store