Google has been quietly keeping track of nearly every single online purchase you’ve ever made, thanks to purchase receipts sent to your personal Gmail account, according to a new report today from CNBC. Even stranger: this information is made available to you via a private web tool that’s been active for an indeterminate amount of time.
According to CNBC, the company says it does not use this information for personalized ad tracking; Google said back in 2017 that it would stop using data collected from Gmail messages to personalize ads. You can also delete the information from the Purchases webpage, but you must do so individually for each recorded transaction.
Google, like Facebook, knows an immense amount of information about you, your personal habits, and, yes, what you buy on the Internet. And like the social network it dominates the online advertising industry alongside, Google gets this information mostly through background data collection using methods and tools its users may not be fully aware of, like Gmail purchase receipts. This is true of web tools like Gmail and smart assistants, which are increasingly coming under scrutiny for the ways the data that software collects is observed by human employees during the artificial intelligence training process.
Those include a controversy over third-party app developers pulling data from the contents of Gmail messages, an auto-login feature for Chrome that would sync web browsing with your Gmail account, and reports that Google supplemented its ad-targeting tools with Mastercard purchase history data to provide advertisers a link between online ad impressions and real-world purchases. All of these situations contribute to a common theme: Google offers users a compromise that involves trading products and web services in exchange for data that the company will collect through a variety of means you may not know about and have little to no control over. That data is then used to help Google target ads, a division of its business that’s largely responsible for it becoming one of the most valuable corporations on Earth.
The existence of such purchase history tool that knows a scary amount of your offline and online behavior stretching back years, even if it is private, does not square nicely with Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s op-ed in The New York Times last week. Timed to the company’s I/O developer conference, Pichai wrote that “privacy cannot be a luxury good,” a subtle swipe at Apple and a pledge to remake Google’s image as one concerned with broad, inclusionary access to privacy tools that give you more control and provides more transparency.