CNBC seems to think it's breaking some sort of news in pointing out the fact that Google uses Gmail to track your online purchase history. The revelation comes from seeing a (relatively) new Google Account page that lets you view every purchase that Google has stored, which rightfully bothers some who didn't realize this was something Google was collecting; or, at least in this much detail. While this is a great PSA for people to be reminded that Google does keep track of this sort of thing, it's neither new nor particularly surprising. Why? Because Google has always collected data from Gmail, and not just purchases — it tracks everything, of course.
When you look through the purchases listed in your Google Account dashboard, you'll see a considerable amount of detail. The retailer, order ID, data and time, shipping and arrival status (where applicable), the item ordered, the delivery address ... it's basically everything. You can even click through each one and see the email that it pulled the data from. And yes, you can also remove that purchase history from your account.
The part that perhaps "scares" people about this purchase collection is that in addition to data on your purchases through Gmail, Google combines it with data from other sources — both its own and from third parties — to get a more complete view of everything you're buying. Bridging the gap between online and offline purchases is incredibly valuable to companies like Google (what you bought informs what you may buy in the future — just ask Amazon), so much so that it has reportedly struck deals with payment processors like Mastercard to link offline purchases to online advertising.
Before you get too freaked out about what Google knows about your purchase history, just think about all of the entities that know all of your purchase history, no matter what email app you use. Your bank and your credit card companies, of course. But also every payment vendor (think Visa, Mastercard, Square, PayPal, Google Pay, Amazon, etc.) you've ever used online either directly or through a third-party retailer. And of course every point-of-sale system your card has been swiped, inserted or tapped to. Sure Google knows a whole lot about your purchase history. But it isn't alone — and honestly I think I trust Google to keep that data and not do anything particularly nefarious with it far more than I do many of the entities listed above.
Google of course deserves to be held to account for the fact that it doesn't make it particularly easy to manage this aggregated purchase data in the way it does much of the other data the company has. And there's no way to outright stop this collection, even as we're only shortly removed from Google I/O, where one emphasis of the main keynote was the importance of data privacy and the ability to manage what Google knows about you.
It's always a good idea to remind yourself of what data Google collects through its various apps and services that you may use — frequently or not. Google's account dashboard has many tools to let you see, and manage, this data. Knowledge of the situation and what this transaction entails is the most important part of using free services. And after learning about it, you don't want that data collected, then you can just as easily stop using Gmail.
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Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.