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Gmail Eerily Tracks Your Purchases

by Paul Arnote (parnote)

Now just when or from where did you purchase those multi-colored shoe laces? If you purchased them online, or if you had a copy of your receipt emailed to your Gmail account, Google knows. And, Google remembers.

Unceremoniously and quite stealthily, Google has amassed a wealth of information about your purchasing history. Every item you've ever purchased online (and used your Gmail email address for purchase confirmation) and every time you've had a merchant you do business with email you a copy of your receipt to your Gmail email address, that information has been extracted and stored by Google. This shocking revelation came out in a May 17, 2019 article on CNBC.

Here's one scary part about all of this: your purchase history is likely to go back YEARS. My own purchase history goes all the way back to 2013. Some people, like Nick Statt on The Verge, have their purchase history go all the way back to 2010.

The small snippet shown in the screenshot above is from March, 2019 of my own purchase history that Google has saved. Until I ran across the CNBC article, I never even knew that Google was keeping track of my purchases. That tends to be the surprise reaction from most people.

So, let's take a look at what the information in the small snippet above shows, working from the bottom of the image to the top. Well, there is the Amazfit Bip Smartwatch I bought for my wife for her birthday. Then there is my annual subscription renewal to my MLB At Bat account. In the early part of March, I purchased a new small form factor laptop to replace my out-of-date and defunct netbook. I did purchase some popcorn popping oil for the popcorn popper we have at work from a restaurant supply company. Oh, and there is the ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins that I ordered and purchased online for my wife's birthday.

So how revealing is this information? Well, it shows that my wife most likely has a smartphone, since most smartwatches connect to smartphones. It shows that we are more than a little bit tech savvy. It shows that I happen to like baseball and popcorn. Oh, and it shows that we (my wife and me, at least) are chocoholics. And that would be just the tip of the iceberg. The information you can infer from all of this is massive.

Don't worry ... this gets better. Follow along here.

Go here, and you can view all of your payments and subscriptions that Google tracks. Just below the section where Google tracks your payment methods, you will find the "Purchases" section. Click on the "Manage purchases" link at the bottom of the box.

Notice how, at the top of the resulting screen, Google informs you that "only you can see your purchases." Yeah, right. Only me ... AND Google! So, I clicked on the first item in the list of purchases, which wasn't a purchase at all. It was a return. I returned some wrong size screen material to Home Depot that I had purchased in error. I just had the receipt sent to my Gmail account.

Clicking on the "purchase" brings up a window that displays all the sorted details of my transaction. Then, clicking on the "Remove Purchase" link at the bottom of the transaction results in the display of the new popup window. Seriously? To remove the purchase, I have to delete the email? This shouldn't be my only option. Maybe I need to save the receipt that is included in my email for future reference or warranty claims.

From the CNBC article:

"To help you easily view and keep track of your purchases, bookings and subscriptions in one place, we've created a private destination that can only be seen by you," a Google spokesperson told CNBC. "You can delete this information at any time. We don't use any information from your Gmail messages to serve you ads, and that includes the email receipts and confirmations shown on the Purchase page."

Except, there is no easy way of deleting your purchase history unless you delete the email containing the receipt for the transaction. Ok. Let's see if there's a way to do this from another angle. Let's go to Google's activity control page. Certainly, there must be some setting I can make there to prevent Google from tracking my purchases.

Nope. There is NOTHING there to manage whether Google tracks your purchases, either. This is the other scary aspect of Google tracking your purchases. There is NO WAY, short of deleting the email containing the information, to turn off purchase tracking or deleting information from your purchase history.

Google vehemently asserts that nothing in or from your Gmail account is used to target ads to you (don't forget that Google's primary source of income is from serving you ads). In fact, the contents of your Gmail account has not been used to serve you ads since they stopped the practice in 2017. They also claim to not sell your data to advertisers. So, what about other entities? Let your imagine roam on just who those "other entities" could or might be. You probably won't land too far away from the target bullseye.

So, if Google isn't using the information to target ads to serve up to you, then why are years of purchase information being stored? Most people don't even know that Google is doing this. Also, if Google isn't using this information, then what is the purpose of saving years of purchase information? And, why make it so hard to delete that information?

Google has said that it is looking into making the settings simpler and easier to control. Still, Google has obviously abandoned "Do No Evil" as a corporate motto. Instead, it seems more like the programming for V-Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Collect all data that can be collected.

Fortunately there may be one way to thwart Google's collection of your purchase history. The ONLY reason my purchase history only goes back to 2013 (despite having a Gmail account from back in the beta days in 2005 or before) is that I used to use an email program to download my emails from Gmail, and then delete them from Gmail after they were downloaded to my computer. That is the ONLY rational explanation I can conceive of for why my purchase history doesn't go back any further than 2013, while other users have purchase history going back even farther in time. Since at least 2013, I have exclusively used the Gmail webmail interface for all of my Gmail interactions.

Google's behavior reminds me of a popular internet meme. Obviously, no one at Google has ever heard of the maxim "just because you can, doesn't mean that you should." If they have, then the whole meaning of it has become lost on them.

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