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Google uses Gmail to track a history of things you buy — and it's hard to delete

Key Points
  • Google saves years of information on purchases you've made, even outside Google, and pulls this information from Gmail.
  • It's complicated to delete this private information, and options to turn it off are hidden in privacy settings.
  • Google says it doesn't use this information to sell you ads.
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google, is sworn in during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Google tracks a lot of what you buy, even if you purchased it elsewhere, like in a store or from Amazon.

Last week, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote a New York Times op-ed that said "privacy cannot be a luxury good." But behind the scenes, Google is still collecting a lot of personal information from the services you use, such as Gmail, and some of it can't be easily deleted.

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. It also knows:

  • I ordered a Philly cheesesteak on a hoagie roll with Cheez Whiz and banana peppers on Jan. 14, 2016.
  • I reloaded my Starbucks card in November 2014.
  • I bought a new Kindle on Dec. 18, 2013, from Amazon.
  • I bought "Solo: A Star Wars Story" from iTunes on Sept. 14, 2018.

And so on.

Take a look at this sample, which covers some things I bought within the last week:

A list of my purchases Google pulled in from Gmail.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Go here to see your own: http://myaccount.google.com/purchases.

"To help you easily view and keep track of your purchases, bookings and subscriptions in one place, we've created a private destination that can only be seen by you," a Google spokesperson told CNBC. "You can delete this information at any time. We don't use any information from your Gmail messages to serve you ads, and that includes the email receipts and confirmations shown on the Purchase page."

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.

You need to delete each purchase manually rom Gmail to get rid of it.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

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 told CNBC you can turn off the tracking entirely, but you have to go to another page for search setting preferences. However, when CNBC tried this, it didn't work -- there was no such option to fully turn off the tracking. It's weird this isn't front and center on Google's new privacy pages or even in Google's privacy checkup feature.

Google says it doesn't use your Gmail to show you ads and promises it "does not sell your personal information, which includes your Gmail and Google Account information," and does "not share your personal information with advertisers, unless you have asked us to."

But, for reasons that still aren't clear, it's pulling that information out of your Gmail and dumping it into a "Purchases" page most people don't seem to know exists. Even if it's not being used for ads, there's no clear reason why Google would need to track years of purchases and make it hard to delete that information. Google says it's looking into simplifying its settings to make them easier to control, however.

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