Google Knows What You Bought

Google knows your purchases

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that Google can read your Gmail. You may even realize that Google is scanning your emails for things like trip itineraries, which allows them to automatically add flights and hotel reservations to your Google Calendar, for example. But you may not realize how much other juicy info is there to be mined, like online purchases.

Every email receipt or purchase confirmation you’ve received since you’ve had your Gmail account has almost surely been parsed and recorded. You may only have a fuzzy recollection of the things you may have purchased over the last 15 years (Gmail began in 2004), but Google knows. (Google is also buying info on 70% of US purchases on credit and debit cards, but that’s another story.)

Viewing Your Past Purchases

To view your purchase history, you can go to this page:

https://myaccount.google.com/purchases

Even if you think you don’t have much there, I encourage you to check the link and just refresh your memory. I was actually surprised to find many things in my list and I thought I was pretty careful.

Long ago, I chose Yahoo to be my “junk email” account – the account I used to sign up for everything, to keep the spam and crap separate from my personal emails. Way back then I wasn’t even thinking about privacy, I just wanted to cleanly separate public and personal stuff. So I was surprised to find a lot of stuff in my Google purchases list. I forgot that at one point I gave my Gmail address to Apple, and so Google was aware of every Apple purchase I’ve ever made… movies, music, HBO Now, and even free iPhone apps (you still get a receipt).

Deleting Your Purchases

While it’s easy to see what Google knows about your online purchases, it’s a lot harder to delete it. First of all, you have to realize that the info is coming from your inbox. To really delete the data, you have to delete the original email that contains the receipt – and you may not want to do that.

There’s also (currently) no way to tell Google not to catalogue this information. Google recently announced that they would allow you to set time limits on the retention of some personal information like location and app usage. You will soon be able to tell Google to delete this data after 3 or 18 months. We can only hope that Google will open this setting to your online purchases, as well.

In the meantime, you will have to use the Google purchases list to manage your data, one purchase at a time. If you click on a particular purchase for more info, you have the option to click “remove purchase”. At this point, you will get a pop up which says “To remove this purpose, delete the email” and it will give you a link to the email. Hardly convenient.

Feeling a little helpless? There’s still a lot you can do to lock down your privacy. See my Data Privacy Day checklist.

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