Google Uses Gmail To Track a History of Things You Buy — and It’s Hard To Delete

CNBC’s Todd Haselton has discovered that Google saves years of information on the purchases you’ve made, even outside Google, and pulls this information from Gmail.

A page called “Purchases” shows an accurate list of many — though not all — of the things I’ve bought dating back to at least 2012. I made these purchases using online services or apps such as Amazon, DoorDash or Seamless, or in stores such as Macy’s, but never directly through Google. But because the digital receipts went to my Gmail account, Google has a list of info about my buying habits. Google even knows about things I long forgot I’d purchased, like dress shoes I bought inside a Macy’s store on Sept. 14, 2015.

But there isn’t an easy way to remove all of this. You can delete all the receipts in your Gmail inbox and archived messages. But, if you’re like me, you might save receipts in Gmail in case you need them later for returns. There is no way to delete them from Purchases without also deleting them from Gmail — when you click on the “Delete” option in Purchases, it simply guides you back to the Gmail message. Google’s privacy page says that only you can view your purchases. But it says “Information about your orders may also be saved with your activity in other Google services ” and that you can see and delete this information on a separate “My Activity” page. Except you can’t. Google’s activity controls page doesn’t give you any ability to manage the data it stores on Purchases.

Google says you can turn off the tracking entirely, but when CNBC tried this, it didn’t work.

Google hasn’t stopped reading your e-mails

If you’re a Gmail user, your messages and emails likely aren’t as private as you’d think. Google reads each and every one (even if you definitely don’t), scanning your painfully long email chains and vacation responders in order to collect more data on you. Google uses the data gleaned from your messages in order to inform a whole host of other products and services, NBC News reported Thursday.

Though Google announced that it would stop using consumer Gmail content for ad personalization last July, the language permitting it to do so is still included in its current privacy policy, and it without a doubt still scans users emails for other purposes. Aaron Stein, a Google spokesperson, told NBC that Google also automatically extracts keyword data from users’ Gmail accounts, which is then fed into machine learning programs and other products within the Google family. Stein told NBC that Google also “may analyze [email] content to customize search results, better detect spam and malware,” a practice the company first announced back in 2012.

“We collect information about the services that you use and how you use them…” says Google’s privacy policy. “This includes information like your usage data and preferences, Gmail messages, G+ profile, photos, videos, browsing history, map searches, docs, or other Google-hosted content. Our automated systems analyze this information as it is sent and received and when it is stored.”

While Google doesn’t sell this information to third parties, has used it to power its own advertising network and inform search results, among other things. And this is far from a closely guarded secret. The company has included disclosures relating to these practices in its privacy policy since at least 2012: “When you share information with us, for example by creating a Google Account, we can make those services even better – to show you more relevant search results and ads…,” says Google’s March 2012 privacy policy.

Don’t expect privacy when sending to Gmail

People sending email to any of Google’s 425 million Gmail users have no “reasonable expectation” that their communications are confidential, the internet giant has said in a court filing.

Consumer Watchdog, the advocacy group that uncovered the filing, called the revelation a “stunning admission.” It comes as Google and its peers are under pressure to explain their role in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass surveillance of US citizens and foreign nationals.

“Google has finally admitted they don’t respect privacy,” said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director. “People should take them at their word; if you care about your email correspondents’ privacy, don’t use Gmail.”

Google set out its case last month in an attempt to dismiss a class action lawsuit that accuses the tech giant of breaking wire tap laws when it scans emails sent from non-Google accounts in order to target ads to Gmail users.

That suit, filed in May, claims Google “unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people’s private email messages”. It quotes Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman: “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”