Gmail Tracks Your Purchases
May 17, 2019 5:50 PM   Subscribe

It seems that Gmail reads receipts for things you purchase that end up in your inbox, storing them under a 'Purchases' page. It's hard to find where this stuff is stored, and even harder to get rid of it.

Google insists that it does not use your purchase information to serve you ads.
posted by Quackles (96 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
I’ve thought about it, and I’d delete my gmail in a heartbeat except that everybody else is on it anyway so google will still have a record of most of my correspondence anyway.

As I write that, though, it occurs to me that I do precious little corresponding anyway these days, so maybe I should rethink my position.
posted by gauche at 5:57 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


Heh. All those emails of other people's receipts I get because somehow the store has mangled the address should make an interesting mess of data.
posted by nubs at 6:14 PM on May 17 [19 favorites]


That's it. I could kindof put up with this except it's not even the nose of the camel, it's the head, the nose was that they parsed your email for relevant ads, and I thought that was a modest enough tradeoff, but didn't really think about it as a leading edge rather than finish line. As far as I can tell, Google 2019 doesn't care or has lost the capacity to know this is creepy. I'm getting out.

Anybody know of a feature comparable alternative to Google Voice that's less than $15/mo?
posted by wildblueyonder at 6:14 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


ProtonMail, FastMail?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 6:22 PM on May 17 [6 favorites]


So my page has a fair few purchases up to 2010, then there's a huge gap until May last year. I wonder what happened? I can't think of anything obvious in terms of changes to my devices, Gmail use, or anything else likely to be relevant.
posted by lollusc at 6:36 PM on May 17


Jeez, I just checked and they had all of my purchases back to 2013, as well as all of my YouTube video watching. WTF

Just deleted the video watch history and then turned off those activity trackers.

But...there doesn’t seem to be a way to tell it to stop compiling a “Purchases” list from your receipt emails. And to delete them, you have to actually manually delete each individual email from which it is pulling the info.

WTF Snoopy Google McSnooperson >:-(


It is no salve when they say “Google doesn’t sell your data” when THEY THEMSELVES are a hugely pervasively infiltrative megacorporation! They don’t need to sell your personal data to a third party marketer, because they have ample marketing elements in-house that can use the data.


GRAR
posted by darkstar at 6:46 PM on May 17 [20 favorites]


I just created a proton mail account.
posted by carter at 6:48 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


Well of course they do.
posted by Automocar at 6:54 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


I've given up on privacy pretty much entirely. Even though I have no social media to speak of, and no apps on my phone, out of both preference and principle, I pretty much assume it's a lost cause. But I'm almost sad that no one else can see my purchases page -- well, ostensibly, though I'm sure that's not in fact true -- because I'm finding it weirdly entertaining to scroll through 10+ years of life changes demarcated by purchasing patterns.
Although, regardless of how things were going at any given point, sushi seems to be a constant.
and, uh, also lube, apparently? literally it's mostly sushi and lube.
posted by halation at 6:57 PM on May 17 [43 favorites]


Huh. I don't use Gmail for any purchases, apparently ("You have no purchases"). That's I guess because I use a Yahoo account for most of my retail stuff, and an email address on my own domain for serious bills. I assume that's all beside the point, though, as the ads I get served bespeak some pretty elaborate surveillance anyway.
posted by Peach at 6:59 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


i feel like at least once a year, i post a comment to the effect of "sadly we must assume that everyone (especially every corporation) is trying to fuck us over at all times, and act defensively in accordance."

today, if someone ever wants to buy or say or ask about something privately, i.e., they would not feel comfortable with their employer, random acquaintance, or russian hacker knowing about it, or it could plausibly be used against them, then that purchase or speech just cannot be done via the mainstream channels of amazon or google or even apple. it just cant.
posted by wibari at 7:01 PM on May 17 [10 favorites]


It's like a filter over my regular email. God help me, when I want to skim for things I've purchased (a common use-case - sometimes I want to buy them again), this is actually a useful view over my data. They should incorporate it in the regular gmail interface.

(I want the kind of life that calls for regular sushi and lube purchases).
posted by Leon at 7:03 PM on May 17 [8 favorites]


(I want the kind of life that calls for regular sushi and lube purchases)

for just $50K+ in nondischargeable student loan debt, lifelong-diminished employment prospects, and a bone-crushing case of imposter syndrome, the glamorous grad school life can be yours, my friend
posted by halation at 7:06 PM on May 17 [37 favorites]


Sushi, lube and reading books???

You people really need to rethink your marketing strategies.
posted by Leon at 7:08 PM on May 17 [6 favorites]


... and yet with all this surveillance and collected data they still won't change my google locale setting to say I am in the United States even though I moved from England in 2012.
posted by srboisvert at 7:17 PM on May 17 [12 favorites]


Also just created a ProtonMail account.

I’ll use it for a while, and if it seems okay, I’ll start migrating my contacts and business over to it.

I guess we should have known, when Google dropped its “Don’t be evil” motto.
posted by darkstar at 7:21 PM on May 17


...this isn't new? I've used that page for ages, and it's useful in that it pops me up alerts for tracking numbers.
posted by tavella at 7:25 PM on May 17 [9 favorites]


ProtonMail, FastMail

Debating which here.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 7:26 PM on May 17


Isn't this just a summary page of all the receipts we have in our inbox? Aren't they just parsing those?

I'm not saying that's good, or that I trust them, I'm just saying Google had this the whole time, as long as you have receipts in your inbox.

Edit: What Leon said.
posted by bondcliff at 7:26 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]


I've had a good first year on Mailbox.org, this past year. It has its own Docs, Sheets, Drive, and Calendar built in, as well.

Switching away from Gmail helps you realize just how intolerably slow it is.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 7:27 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Yeah, when I saw the article references receipts from 2012, I was like... That seems right. This isn't new. Google tracking everything we do isn't new.
posted by greermahoney at 7:41 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


It is no salve when they say “Google doesn’t sell your data” when THEY THEMSELVES are a hugely pervasively infiltrative megacorporation! They don’t need to sell your personal data to a third party marketer, because they have ample marketing elements in-house that can use the data.

While reading the news on my phone, Google's ad servers noticed I was on a Nexus 5 and let me know that I can upgrade to a Pixel 3a....
posted by mikelieman at 8:04 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


> This isn't new.

I do appreciate the reminder, though.

And I do feel that the fact that this is buried somewhere obscure, rather than being a useful feature added to gmail itself, speaks volumes about what the intent is.
posted by Leon at 8:05 PM on May 17 [10 favorites]


It's creepy because it's pulling out all the data and putting it in order, not that it's just saying "This email is a receipt y/n" It's like, the idea that they are so smart and have no boundaries, what will they do next? How will we know when they cross the line, how will we stop them? We can't and won't.
posted by bleep at 8:14 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Also mine went back to 2006. Christmas present for someone who dated at the time and then I remembered them not really appreciating it even though it was the perfect gift for them. Whereas the gift they got me was wildly inappropriate, selfish, and thoughtless. And then we got into a fight awhile later because they found the gift was still in the trunk of my car.
posted by bleep at 8:16 PM on May 17 [9 favorites]


I'm shocked, shocked to find that data harvesting is going on in here.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:35 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


Credit card companies have been doing this for years. Collating your purchases and (slightly anonymized at a zipcode/fsa level) selling it to a whole bunch of data firms.

That's what fuelled direct marketing and still underlies a whole bunch of "3rd party" data linking in online advertising. Usually "anonymized" but now linked to email addresses (e.g. gmail) and social media (e.g. Facebook).
posted by mephisjo at 8:37 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


Isn't this just a summary page of all the receipts we have in our inbox? Aren't they just parsing those?

Yes. This is a smart search run over your stored email (not just the inbox). They probably have one for airline reservations, overdue library books, and any other kind of form letter you receive regularly.

If you're so inclined, deleting all of these from your mailbox using the search function and checkboxes is a lot easier than trying to delete them from the 'Purchases' page.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:41 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I’ve known gmail was assy for a while now. It’s just seeing all of my purchases from the past six years culled out of my email, lined up in a neat row, in a tidy document that is intentionally somewhat obscured and you can’t turn off the “feature” was the last straw.

Frog in water, and all.

I gave up Facebook years ago. Now I’m giving up gmail. I guess a man has to rage against the dying of the right to privacy, even if in this brave new world it may be a losing battle, in the end.

Also installed ProtonVPN while I was at it.
posted by darkstar at 8:48 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


And I do feel that the fact that this is buried somewhere obscure, rather than being a useful feature added to gmail itself, speaks volumes about what the intent is.

The fact that it's visible at all rather than an internal-to-Google tool is at least somewhat transparent.
posted by explosion at 8:48 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


By the way, is there an easy way to mass-forward huge chunks of email to another address, or even (much) better, export them in a form they could be easily accessed and read?

I’d like to delete all of the email, but would like a readable archive of it outside of gmail.
posted by darkstar at 8:50 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


Ah yes...it appears you can create a downloadable archive of all of your gmail and other google content. I’ll have to test that out tomorrow.
posted by darkstar at 8:59 PM on May 17


That does work - in the sense that they compile and download all the content they're willing to admit they've kept about you.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:20 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


Google to push new ads on its apps to snare shoppers (Parrish Dave, Reuters)
Whether you are Googling on the couch, fiddling with Maps in the car or swiping through the Discover feed on the toilet, expect Alphabet Inc’s Google to put ads in several new spots this year.

The search giant on Tuesday announced an expansion of its advertising real estate to boost revenue from mobile shoppers. It will feature ads on the homepage of its smartphone app worldwide, show more ads in Maps and place ads with image galleries in search results.
"Hey, where can we find out what people bought in the past so we can put appropriate ads on their mobiles when they use our app?"
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:27 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


Sure, because why not give people ads for stuff they've already bought? I see no downside to this plan!
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:31 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]


Uh, "receipts" has been an automatic top level label on my account for several years now and it's actually kinda useful when trying to figure out where all the damn money went?

I often feel like people's surprise at what Google is doing is inversely proportional to the number of times they've looked at the "My Activity" view in their Google Account, which isn't at all hidden, at least on Android.

As I've pointed out in the past, Google gives you the contractual right to have them delete everything they have associated with you. Most companies do not give you that option unless you are a resident of the EU or other jurisdiction where they are legally required to do so.
posted by wierdo at 10:11 PM on May 17 [11 favorites]


Direct quote from a Google spokesperson to NBC:
> 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.

The Purchases page looks more like something someone thought would be handy, and is demonstrative of their ability to parse unstructured content, but they are not using Gmail message contents to drive advertising directly. Even Google knows that would be a step too far (and would cause people to leave Gmail).
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:13 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


This appears to be a record of anything that they display a order-style entry for in your inbox - ie, something that they've been recognizing and acting on for years. It's interesting to see in one place, but it also seems like it's pretty easy to assume that they have this information because... they have this information? This is how they display the cards in your inbox that give you one-click access to the tracking info and manifest for Amazon orders - they have to analyze the email to do that, and I certainly don't delete things.

I don't think this can be framed as quite the revelation it seems to be - this has been part and parcel of GMail (and Inbox even more so) for a long time. I'm sure Google could generate a page listing every flight you've received a boarding pass for - that's also something they're analyzing every email for.

This doesn't really address the privacy issues, and I don't think it can. I do think people are missing why/how this feature exists, though.,
posted by sagc at 10:13 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]


Thing is, if I divest myself of Google, FB etc do I then raise a flag for deeper inspection? Google have no excuse, it's not like they're FB who had a huge initial cash injection from a TLA and are beholden.

Serious question - Are there services that will - for a fee - make a believable trail for users who want to remain plausibly anonymous?
posted by unearthed at 10:41 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]


Because there's often a bit of confusion on this point: in addition to Gmail-snooping if you use Gmail, Google sees a large percentage of everything you do online even if you don't have a Google account or don't log in.

This is because Google provides a bunch of free services to people who build web sites, like fonts, or more particularly Google Analytics (ancient previously) which helps to track and analyze who is visiting your web site and what they're looking at... by passing all of that information to Google which sorts it and gives you pretty charts and alert mechanisms and things like that.

MetaFilter for example uses these services. So wave hello to Google, they know you're reading this thread. That's right, even you lurkers.

(The exception being that some ad blockers and other measures will prevent some of this tracking.)
posted by XMLicious at 12:12 AM on May 18 [7 favorites]


This goes nicely with Google's archive of every airline and accommodation booking I've made since 2013: https://myaccount.google.com/reservations
posted by eddieddieddie at 12:28 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


On a quick glance, this doesn’t look that good. Almost all of the items recorded for me are Amazon purchases, though I actually bought lots of stuff from other people. But it seems to miss some Amazon purchases too; and since La Segunda has the habit of using my Amazon account, around half the items are hers (I presume).
Ads driven by this data (just hypothetically) would be significantly worse targeted than random ones.
posted by Segundus at 12:38 AM on May 18


> Are there services that will - for a fee - make a believable trail for users who want to remain plausibly anonymous?

We may be starting to drift a bit from the topic of the post, but my personal theory for why Google has been so aggressive in pushing ReCaptcha (driving almost all competing captcha providers out of business) is that they are using it to sharpen the tools they will need to identify and contain any and all such efforts by users to maintain privacy or limit Google et al.'s control over their attention.

In particular, if and when "virtual assistants" start to become a serious thing and not just hype -- where I could e.g. ask my local virtual assistant to use a Dockerized anonymous browser to look some topics up in Google, or sift through various Twitter streams, and summarize the key points for me rather than giving Google/etc. any of my personal human attention or leaving any obvious backtrail to my identity -- those tools would be an existential threat to the whole attention economy. And if and when that happens, Google will be right there with the tools *they* need to shut down any such peasants' revolts.

(ReCaptcha already makes your life extremely difficult even if you're just using a VPN and some basic privacy settings. If you try to e.g. control the pointer from the command line rather than moving it in a human-like fashion -- or rather, a fashion that Google ableistically deems human-like -- you'll probably find that you cannot authenticate no matter how many correct answers you give. Now consider how many critically important websites (government agencies, banks etc.) use ReCaptcha. If you can't present ReCaptcha-acceptable proof that you are a sufficiently real human, you risk being wholly shut out of crucial internet services. That's an enormous amount of leverage they already have against anyone who has the temerity to think they're entitled to control their own information and attention.)
posted by shenderson at 12:43 AM on May 18 [24 favorites]


One of my recurring problems with Google engineers over the years is that very few of them seem to realize that their salary is paid for by ads. They really seem to believe Google is a technology company.

I'm starting to wonder if that's a side effect of Google actively pushing that image of itself. Consumers seem constantly surprised when it turns out that Google is in advertising business.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:56 AM on May 18 [7 favorites]


I am a long time internet shopper-purchaser. I have bought clothes, shoes, groceries, all kinds of things over many years. My Google history lists one pair of scissors, and some oven pans. Guess I am not at all interesting. Thank goodness.
There was a space for comments so I requested that Google quit sending me emails such as "xxxpersonal", and all other sex, loan, insurance, etc. emails. I get 80 to 200 of those every day. Tomorrow I will probably get 300.
posted by Cranberry at 12:59 AM on May 18


MetaFilter: literally it's mostly sushi and lube
posted by chavenet at 2:26 AM on May 18 [9 favorites]


Mine just says "You don't have any purchases"
Thats because I use gmail only for messaging people, when I login to a website to buy something I use a second separate email account, not on gmail mainly so that I can login to both accounts at the same time.

The best part of this is when at a brick and mortar store and they offer you: hey we can give you 10% off if you sign up to our bullshit newsletter, and I reply with sure it's Lanark.shop@... and the assistant give me a look that says 'smart move you arent even going to see any of this nonsense'.
posted by Lanark at 2:54 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


It's not true that Google doesn't user the content of your email for marketing purposes. Researchers caught them doing it, and they had to pay a settlement (This is the best link I can find quickly on my phone. although it doesn't discuss the settlement.)

I've been using Protonmail for a couple of years and deleted my Gmail account six months ago. No regrets.

I've been playing with Cryptpad as a replacement for Google office stuff and so far I'm happy with it.
posted by antinomia at 4:06 AM on May 18 [4 favorites]


Gmail's obsession with your airline receipts is really creepy. It seems to have been baked in to Gmail in a really early version and now seems to serve no useful purpose, apart from keeping a permanent and undeletable record of all of your long distance travel.

Google tries to justify it that it gives you a reminder of your flight, but it's completely redundant as most airlines are better at reminding you. Google usually pings me about an hour before takeoff, just a quick reminder that if you're not already at the boarding gate then it's already too late to do anything about it.

It's obvious that Google doesn't care about the feature or they would implement it more intelligently, but they're also seriously intent on keeping it despite the GDPA frowning on such unsolicited data retention. What are they doing that for?
posted by Eleven at 4:10 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


I don't like Gmail any more, and my own Gmail account runs a forwarding filter that means that the only stuff stored in it is 30 days worth of Trash, but this right here?
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.
This is the kind of ill-informed fearmongering that unfortunately passes for tech reporting in 2019.

They're not "pulling information out of your Gmail and dumping it into a Purchases page"; they're providing a filtered view into your existing mailboxes. In other words, the Purchases page is brought into existence by the act of looking at it. If you don't want it, don't look at it. And if you don't want Google storing your receipts and parsing them for advertising purposes, delete the mails they're stored in because that's where they are stored and the entire purpose of Gmail from day 1 has been to give Google's robot parsers access to your mails for advertising purposes.

How is that "hard"?
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 AM on May 18 [16 favorites]


It's not true that Google doesn't user the content of your email for marketing purposes.

I've had at least one specific experience of that - I had extensive family email conversations about a relative with a disease, then suddenly started receiving paper mailers from foundations for said disease requesting donations.
posted by carter at 4:36 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


...then suddenly started receiving paper mailers

The problem there is that there is no way to conclusively prove they got your details from Google. These companies hoover up data wherever they can get it, but I'm sceptical that Google would just sell it to them, after all it is in Googles interest to keep that to themselves. The Google business model is having all the 3rd parties pay Google (repeatedly) to display relevant adverts. Why would they hand over the individual details and allow companies to do an end-run around the whole system?
posted by Lanark at 4:54 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


I wasn't particularly paranoid when I set up my own mail server, instead using it to play with AWS. However, I'm starting to think it's not such a bad idea.
posted by MrGuilt at 5:25 AM on May 18


I've been real happy with Polarismail. Kind of hard to beat $1 a month for email.
posted by COD at 5:54 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


Emailed receipts are so worth it and do not undermine any sort of privacy in any way.

...


Pardon me, I'm going to go bash my head into the wall until I believe that.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:00 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Huh. Mine says I don't have any even though I use gmail for purchases all the time. Maybe because I have a business account?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:03 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


I also have a business account and don't see anything.
posted by Slothrup at 6:06 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Hotel/airline bookings that are listed in e-mails that I receive in Gmail automatically turn up in Google Calendar. I didn't ask for Google to put them there, Google just decided on their own to put them there.

Google isn't smart enough at this point to tell the difference between itineraries for bookings I've made myself, and itineraries that other people in my family have forwarded to me in e-mail. They're definitely just parsing and looking for patterns. I'd guess they're also zeroing in on e-mail senders such as booking.com that are likely to send the data they want to capture.
posted by gimonca at 6:19 AM on May 18


it's completely redundant as most airlines are better at reminding you

Very much this. The times when Google Assistant has been activated on my phone, the experience has usually been me saying back to it "Yes, I know, leave me alone".
posted by gimonca at 6:20 AM on May 18


PhoBWanKenobi:

Same here- I don't have an @gmail.com address, mine is @[customdomain] so maybe that's the difference?
posted by Paladin1138 at 6:26 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


So much of the behavior people are alarmed at is A. very much not new; and B. can be eliminated or adjusted by the user. I mean, be mad at Alphabet, but this is small potatos.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:31 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


Same here- I don't have an @gmail.com address, mine is @[customdomain] so maybe that's the difference?

I think so. Ironically, a purchase tracking built-in would be really useful for business expenses.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:36 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


Mine is hilariously bad at actually capturing my purchase history. Amazon, sure, and basically anything I paid for over Square, but almost nothing else, including things from major retailers and tiny niche businesses.
posted by carrioncomfort at 7:19 AM on May 18


literally it's mostly sushi and lube.

Listen I know some people find it unspeakable to have a beverage with dinner but please don’t put sex lube on your food
posted by Automocar at 7:36 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]


My purchase history just seems to be for things I've ordered through Google itself (a phone, online storage, a few movies) and the random online purchase. Not comprehensive by any means.
posted by JamesBay at 7:58 AM on May 18


To those folks who are shrugging their shoulders at this and saying it’s no big deal, been known for years, it’s obvious, no new revelation: I agree. For you, all these things are true. Clearly, you’re a more savvy, sophisticated gmail user than I am.

For me, however, even though I might have known in the back of my mind that google was data mining like a pig, it was nevertheless a little shocking to actually see the mined data culled from my personal email inbox and arranged in a nice report. Kind of makes what was theoretically true much more concrete.

Anyway, I’ve shifted my main purchase accounts to send receipts to the new ProtonMail address. I think I’ll have other financial services (insurance, etc.) do the same, as well as medical care providers. Google has no need to know the details of my personal financial or medical care decisions.
posted by darkstar at 8:51 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


Also don't put food lube on your sex [PSA about Crisco and latex goes here]
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:54 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


It's obvious that Google doesn't care about [flight receipt tracking] or they would implement it more intelligently, but they're also seriously intent on keeping it despite the GDPA frowning on such unsolicited data retention. What are they doing that for?

I suspect it's a left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-hand-is-doing problem... Google owns a travel search company, ITA, which it's been half-assedly trying to turn into a competitor of Expedia, Kayak, Travelocity, etc. for nearly a decade. IIRC they launched a desktop platform for it just this week. The platform would be DOA, because travel search is already such a crowded space, but if they build it with a machine-learning approach, and have the travel receipts of half a billion GMail users that they could train it on, well then that would be an entirely different story.

It's weird and disconcerting that a company as big as Google would just aggregate data and sit on it in the vague hope that, ten years down the road, they might use it to launch a new arm of the company, but when you have the assets and reach of Google, nothing is impossible.
posted by Mayor West at 9:51 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


The uncanny prescience of Google search autocomplete on my phone lately has got me wondering whether Google is listening for keywords when I'm chatting with people.
posted by heatherlogan at 10:13 AM on May 18


Like, chatting verbally in person, not on the internet.
posted by heatherlogan at 10:13 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


To those folks who are shrugging their shoulders at this and saying it’s no big deal, been known for years, it’s obvious, no new revelation: I agree. For you, all these things are true. Clearly, you’re a more savvy, sophisticated gmail user than I am.

part of what's important here is that this is on CNBC, which is the go-to financial site for hoi polloi. it's not some tech site or bbs or Usenet or even, say, cnet. which means a lot of people reading it are going to think it's an astonishing revelation, maybe scary, and act accordingly.
posted by chavenet at 10:50 AM on May 18


The uncanny prescience of Google search autocomplete on my phone lately has got me wondering whether Google is listening for keywords when I'm chatting with people.

About a year ago at the mall with friends with my phone in my purse (location/assistant/bluetooth/data all turned off as per my usual), I saw a display of Instant Pots in a Williams-Sonoma and idly wondered if they were worth the hefty price tag. W-S promptly emailed me a coupon for $30 off Instant Pot to my gmail -- the timestamp on the email matches the 10-15 minutes when I would have been in their store.

So yeah. It's listening even when you explicitly tell it not to listen.
posted by basalganglia at 11:48 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


Sure, because why not give people ads for stuff they've already bought? I see no downside to this plan!

Ahhh the Amazon method
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 1:22 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]


So yeah. It's listening even when you explicitly tell it not to listen.

If your location is turned off, I'm not sure how that would work. The Pot, yes, but not the store.
posted by praemunire at 1:29 PM on May 18


I don't feel obliged to argue that Google probably aren't lying about email scanning. But I do want to argue this point. None of the top five or so tech fiefdoms are secretly collecting background audio for marketing. We would know relatively quickly. That shit would be visible technically, and inside the company. It would leak. And they know it. I'm not certain how America would punish them for lying about it, but it is simply illegal. ("one party consent").

It's an attractive myth. But one worth thinking about, for similar reasons that Google Purchases is worth thinking about.
posted by sourcejedi at 1:32 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]


I have a bunch of different email addresses for various uses, and I forward all sent and received emails to a separate Gmail account to serve as an easily searchable archive. Being able to quickly locate an email from a decade ago has been useful more times than I can count.

I am not sure what the actual fear is here. All our old emails - regardless of which service we use - are subpoenable by The Law. (Just because you deleted them doesn't mean they aren't on the provider's backups.) Should we really worry that some Google employee we meet on a dating app is going to go check our purchase history to see if we are extravagant on a first date? Or that our prior purchases of (*cough*) lube might lead to targeted ads for, um, condoms? I like me some Philip K. Dick novels as much as the next MeFite, but what's the real fear here?
posted by PhineasGage at 2:32 PM on May 18


I dunno, PG, let me arbitrarily decide what details about your personal life I'm going to gather and keep forever for resale, and you tell me whether you think you should decide that, or me.
posted by praemunire at 2:42 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]


The fear, for me, is the ongoing collection of my data - however apparently inconsequential or meaningless - by large corporations without my knowledge, consent, or any disclosure of what that data is being used for.
posted by nubs at 2:47 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


I guess my default expectation is different: these companies have been around - and their behavior clear - for a long time by now. I always assume anything being provided and hosted by someone other than myself and for free (email, blog, photos, etc.) is permanently at risk of being shut down or scanned and eventually monetized by whoever is hosting it.
posted by PhineasGage at 3:11 PM on May 18


I saw a display of Instant Pots in a Williams-Sonoma and idly wondered if they were worth the hefty price tag. W-S promptly emailed me a coupon for $30 off Instant Pot to my gmail -- the timestamp on the email matches the 10-15 minutes when I would have been in their store.

Er… so you were already on their mailing list? And they were clearly already promoting the Instant Pot, since they had a store display?

I’m not sure “my phone is secretly listening to my conversations” is necessarily the most parsimonious explanation for that emailed coupon.

Not that I have no problems with how Google uses data — I quit using Chrome because of the forced browser log-in that vacuums up your browsing history. But in general I’m extremely skeptical of “phone is listening” theories. Confirmation bias is pretty strong with human brains.
posted by snowmentality at 4:13 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]


praemunire, snowmentality: I've never bought anything from Williams-Sonoma or gotten email promos from them before. I was creeped out, so if there's another reasonable explanation I'd love to hear it. Like most people I've had plenty of other instances (e.g. Facebook ads -- and no, I don't have the microphone-loving FB app on my phone) that might be simple Baader Meinhof effect, but the combination of specificity, source, and timestamp in this specific case seem pretty damning.
posted by basalganglia at 4:57 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


By the way, is there an easy way to mass-forward huge chunks of email to another address, or even (much) better, export them in a form they could be easily accessed and read?


There is an inexpensive service called MigrationWiz that does this.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:22 PM on May 18


I was creeped out, so if there's another reasonable explanation I'd love to hear it.

Here’s one: the existence of what you are proposing would wipe out tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars of stock value of either/both of the main phone providers, to say nothing of all the people who would go to prison.
posted by sideshow at 9:03 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


all the people who would go to prison

Heh. Tech overlords do not go to prison, they are in the "protected by but not bound by" group.
posted by maxwelton at 9:40 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


I'm not an anthropologist, but I feel like there's probably a really interesting investigation of emerging myths regarding technology. Because there are a lot of them... the systems have gotten so complex and their operation is so opaque, that it seems to tweak a very human tendency to assign agency and construct explanations for what are likely coincidences or random behavior. Where once people might have experienced some seemingly low-probability coincidence and attributed it to capricious gods or household demons or whatever, now it's technology.

It's impossible to explain exactly why someone might get a coupon for something immediately after talking about it, but consider: there are lots of things you talk about and don't get coupons for in your inbox. And you get lots of spammy crap that's related to things you didn't recently talk about. None of them are noteworthy. But when you get an email about something that you did just talk about, it grabs your attention. It's very easy to see meaning in random coincidence when you try enough times.

I'm reminded of the common myth about the flu vaccine causing the flu. You can tell people that this doesn't happen, that the flu vaccine doesn't work that way, but inevitably someone will say something like "well this one time I got the flu vaccine and the next week I got the flu! So you're full of it!" And it's really hard to get past that apparent "real world" experience. Even though in reality, probably they either (1) didn't actually get influenza, but just some other viral infection, or (2) were already infected before they got the vaccine, so it was too late. But who's to say exactly what happened? The myth becomes stronger than reality when it matches up to someone's lived experience and seems like the simplest plausible explanation, especially when the real explanation is difficult or impossible to determine after the fact.

Google, in particular, seems to do a very poor job educating users and trying to preempt this sort of thing. Quite the opposite; sometimes they seem to take a certain amount of glee in making their products appear more intelligent than they really are. Which is understandable, from a marketing perspective, but I think in the long run it has a tendency to backfire: when customers think your product is more intelligent than it really is, they can start blaming it for things it can't really do.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:44 PM on May 18 [13 favorites]


Here’s one: the existence of what you are proposing would wipe out tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars of stock value of either/both of the main phone providers, to say nothing of all the people who would go to prison.

It is 2019. I don't believe any part of that for a second.
posted by bongo_x at 2:41 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]


As a datapoint, I am a materialist shithead that talks about products all the damn time and yet I’ve never ever noticed a targeted ad come in after I’d discussed something out loud. After I’ve googled it, definitely. Or clicked on something in my Facebook newsfeed. But not verbal (or even text-message) discussion.
posted by mosst at 5:51 AM on May 19


Not that I have no problems with how Google uses data — I quit using Chrome because of the forced browser log-in that vacuums up your browsing history. But in general I’m extremely skeptical of “phone is listening” theories. Confirmation bias is pretty strong with human brains.

I once told my husband I was going to the library, got out my phone to check the time, and saw that it had brought up directions to my local library.

Of course, I have a Pixel, where search is activated by saying "Okay google." I have seen it mistake my saying "okay, yeah," to other humans as initiating search. Also, I back up my photos on google photos with location tagging on. If I go to my google location history, they serve up an uncannily accurate tracking of every single thing I do on a daily basis. I know they're doing this. Almost a decade ago now, I started using them for photo back-up and they started to create charming "stories" about every trip that I took.

So my phone is listening, at least.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:08 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]


I am completely rolling my eyes that anyone thinks that tech companies wouldn’t spy on us because c’mon, you do realize companies (Boeing, generic pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, whoever makes Round-Up all easily come to mind) are doing shit all the time that should and eventually did affect their stock value? And I have no doubt they continue to do that shit without remorse. Nothing stops companies from doing something profitable just because it’s also in bad faith/illegal.

But I do think yeah, sometimes it’s just coincidence. But in the case of the library directions: I used to let Google keep a record of where I went and it was uncanny at how it correctly guessed where I was going even when I went to places irregularly at different times? Like it always knew when I was going to my ex’s mom’s house and that was sporadic. It was creepy but I chalked it up to a scary good algorithm. I wonder if that’s how it knew you were heading to the library?
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 3:01 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


I was creeped out, so if there's another reasonable explanation I'd love to hear it.

Here’s one: the existence of what you are proposing would wipe out tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars of stock value of either/both of the main phone providers, to say nothing of all the people who would go to prison.


Geolocation. You're probably running apps in the background that have location services and data sharing in their TOS. You were in the store, there's a sale, you lingered, coupon.

Geolocation is not as sensitive under holdover wiretapping/privacy law as audio surveillance. Which is pretty f'ed, but still....
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:57 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]




Mine is surprisingly incomplete. It's mostly my Amazon purchases, but it seems to be blind to anything bought through a Shopify site - even though all those purchase receipts route through my gmail account.
posted by elwoodwiles at 6:30 PM on May 19


“GDPR One Year On”, an episode of the BBC television program Click. (Video geo-locked unfortunately, the GDPR being the European Union law intended to give citizens of EU countries control of and insight into data that is collected on them.)
posted by XMLicious at 4:01 AM on May 25


Google does some pretty slick predictive analytics, especially with the Pixel phones. If you go to a place repeatedly, it will start bringing up traffic/weather/directions for that place, anticipating when you'll go there.

Sometimes it's remarkably stupid, like when it decided I live at my office (how depressing) and not at my house, which should have been trivial to tell apart (uh, my dudes, "home" is probably the place where you are at night—perhaps this says some stuff about Googlers' lifestyles), but sometimes it's surprisingly prescient. It knows that on certain days I go to my volunteer workplace after my day-job workplace and has traffic information ready to go.

Anyway, I think we as humans tend to anthropomorphize the problem-solving processes of complex, opaque machinery, particularly when companies put a human-ish UI on it. To do the sort of predictive analytics that Google does by hand would put you deep into "conspiracy wall" territory, making it seem harder than it is—for a machine it's relatively straightforward.

I maintain that they really need to do a better job clarifying where they are getting the information that feeds into their analytics and predictive services, though, because it's only going to get creepier-seeming as it gets better. They are going to be a victim of their own success at some point, if not already.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:59 AM on May 26 [2 favorites]


So I got around to creating a ProtonMail account last night. I started thinking about whether I should send an email to my various contacts to let them know about it... and realized how little email I get from my actual friends and family, as opposed to automated receipts, newsletters, spam, etc.

Huh.
posted by nickmark at 11:08 AM on June 6


This was one of the big reasons I wanted a protonmail account -- I don't want all those password reset and login emails going to google. Unfortunately our email has become the keys to the kingdom for a lot of our online activity.
posted by antinomia at 5:31 AM on June 17


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