As tech titans like Google, Amazon, and Facebook begin to access more of our personal data, the issue of online security and privacy grows increasingly dire. Aware of this growing public fear of privacy loss, Google CEO Sundar Pichai tried to convince Google users otherwise in a New York Times op-ed. But his attempt to reassure concerned consumers was met with little avail, due to newly discovered information about Google tracking online shopping.
How Google Knows More than We Thought
Through Gmail, Google has been quietly recording an archive of our online purchases by using bots to scan inboxes for emailed receipts and order confirmations. The result is an extensive digital history of an individual’s online purchases dating back to the creation of their email account. If you have a Gmail account, go ahead and have a look yourself.
Google tracking online shopping is the latest threat to online security. In response to concerns over the dangers this online purchase history archive could pose to user privacy, a Google spokesperson responded to multiple media outlets stating how this feature is mainly meant “to help [users] easily view and keep track of [their] purchases, bookings and subscriptions in one place.”
Google also noted how the company doesn’t use Gmail messages to curate ads for users—receipts and confirmations included.
Moreover, the spokesperson stressed that this information can be deleted at any time. But it’s not as easy as one would think.
How to Delete Your Purchase History
Deleting one’s purchase history on Google isn’t as convenient as mass selecting every transaction listed and hitting the trash button. Rather, clearing your entire online purchase history requires you to delete every purchase on record individually—a painstaking, slow, and tortuous process.
CNBC’s Todd Haselton also discovered that deleting your emailed receipts and order confirmations to erase your purchase history won’t work, either. After trashing all the emails on his Gmail account, Haselton found that his purchase history remained entirely untouched—his transactions were still visible on Google’s servers.
Not allowing Google access to your mailbox is perhaps the best way to avoid one’s purchases being recorded. But for circumstances like these, there’s no such thing as flipping an off-switch. As Fast Company reporter Joel Winston wrote, “there is no way for users to simply turn the data-mining off.”
Beyond Ad Personalization
Although Google remains adamant that it does not currently use purchase data for curating ads as part of its “giant ad business,” the transaction information can still enhance user profiles. While the data remains presently unused for ad personalization, it’s very possible Google will eventually make use of it in the future, since the company’s terms of service allow for it.
But if Google isn’t using our messages to fuel its ad business, then what is the point of collecting all of our information?
Knowledge of consumer purchase history could make it easier for companies to practice dynamic pricing, which is charging different amounts for the same product. Uber’s “surge pricing model” is a good example—routing cars to those willing to pay higher prices while neglecting users who are reluctant to pay normal rates. Transaction data, coupled with other personal information Google possesses, make it very possible for big tech companies to create a financial gauge for customers like a credit score.
As the media increasingly unearths new information about how big tech companies gather and make use of our data, the price of free online services becomes more apparent. Now, it seems that taking advantage of the infinite services our Internet-dependent world has to offer is a great convenience gained at the expense of online privacy.