How To Protect Your Privacy From Google's Tracking

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How To Protect Your Privacy From Google's Tracking (And Other Overlooked Privacy Risks)
Ever wondered why most Google services are free? How do they make their millions? It is an open secret that Google’s entire business model is based on tracking users, collecting their data, and using it for commercial purposes.

How To Protect Your Privacy From Google's Tracking
How To Protect Your Privacy From Google's Tracking (Credits - Intego)

Their freemium model is, by far, one of the most successfully implemented ones out there. Everything, from email data, search history, websites visited, places you’ve been to, is tracked and used by Google and, most likely, third-party advertisers.

Google tracking explained — How important is it to them?

Sometime last year, several publications reported that Google tracks shopping records using receipts they collect from Gmail accounts. It turns out they have been doing this for a while now without anyone noticing or raising the alarm. It’s quite normal for tech companies like Google and Microsoft to do such things without seeking users’ approval except from changing the terms of usage they send to users.

Since then, Google has come out to explain this “feature” in a bid to manage the negative coverage it has attracted. Here is what they had to say about tracking user purchase data on Gmail:

  • That the information collected is domiciled on a user’s account
  • They have been doing it for over a decade
  • Google does not use the information for ad targeting purposes(debatable).
  • Gmail users are free to view and delete the data at anytime
  • That the purchase data collected is private and not accessible to either Google or third parties.

All this sounds quite convincing to the average user but not so much for experts who understand how companies like Google operate or what privacy means on a freemium model.
Experts will be quick to question Google’s real intentions, given that collecting user data (especially purchase data) is important to them. Google would go to the ends of the earth to get as much data as they can on your purchase history, shopping preferences, where and whom you buy from when you tend to buy, etc.

Since the discovery, several experts, such as the folks over at Bleeping Computer, have come out to question Google’s real intentions as far as collecting and tabulating your purchase history is concerned. Two questions arise if one were to decide whether Google is not using Gmail purchase receipts for other purposes:

  1. Who needs their purchase receipts automatically extracted from their incoming email by a third party?
  2. What stops Google from using the purchase data for ad targeting? After all, current laws and what Google has on the EULA does allow them to collect and use this data.  At the same time, Google has always been quite open about the amount of data they collect on their platforms. 
In their data transparency page, they clearly state that they do use, among other details, “emails you write and receive on Gmail”  for advertising and product improvement.  Even more worrying is the fact that Google has admitted in the past that they do let hundreds of third-party companies access your inbox data.

How to stop Google from tracking your purchases

True to their word, Google does indeed provide an interface through which users can access their historical shopping data. You can access the interface using the following procedure.

Step 1: Safety

Make sure you are logged into your Google account on your browser. Use the Gmail account that you normally use for purchases if you have multiple emails. Also, note that G Suite accounts may not have this data collection “feature” enabled. All the more reason why Google’s real intentions are quite suspect; why would they provide an “important feature” on their freemium accounts and not have it on their paid accounts anyway?

Step 2:  Purchases

Access “Purchases” on a separate tab but on the same browser you used to log into your Gmail/Google account. Locate the tab/link labeled “Payments & Subscriptions and click on it. This will take you to a nicely tabulated list of all the purchases you’ve made in the past several months.

The purchases are even separated into various groups based on multiple transaction types such as reservations, Google purchases, subscription services like Netflix, among others. You can also view a month by month tabulation of all purchases whose receipts were sent to your email for the past five years.

Step 3: Deleting your purchase history 

If you are conscious about your privacy and security, then you should consider deleting some of the data on your purchase history. This is especially important if you receive sensitive transaction emails on your Gmail inbox. As expected, Google does not make it easy to delete this data even when they claim that users are free to manage and delete their data at any time. Here is how to go about it:
Find the purchase you want to get rid of on the list and click on it. This will show a list of things or items you purchased on that transaction.

Locate the “i” icon/ button and click on it to view where Google got the data from- the receipt email. Annoyingly, you will need to delete that email to remove the purchase data. So much for being able to delete your data anytime, you want. Clearly, this interface or feature, as Google calls it, is not made to help users manage their historical purchase data. Instead, it’s just another avenue through which Google unapologetic ally uses your data for commercial purposes hence the need to make it difficult for you to purge it.

Where does the shopping data come from?

According to Google, the Gmail shopping data they collect comes from various sources, including email receipts you receive in your inbox.  To do this, Google keeps an eye on emails that have purchases, payments, subscriptions, reservations, and any other thing that appears like a transaction.
Curiously, Google’s algorithm does not seem to discriminate between purchases made in their ecosystem (Google Pay) and others. For instance, they collect shopping data for purchases made on Amazon, Walmart, and pretty much every website out there.

Given that they have been doing this for over a decade, you might be surprised to find some weird transactions you did years ago that you’d rather they weren’t remembered for this long; Google doesn’t forget!

How to protect your privacy online

In the age of data collection and e-commerce, every other company seems to want to collect as much data as they possibly can from everyone. Every transaction you do online, every click, every video you view, and every website you visit is logged by a third-party data collection entity.
It has been proven in the past that some websites install hundreds of third-party plugins that harvest user data every second of every day.

One could argue that being tracked is the price you have to pay for accessing certain web resources and using freemium products like Gmail. While this might be true to some extent, trouble comes when your data gets into the wrong hands or when it’s used to profile you and you end up receiving prices that aren’t standard across websites.

For instance, it has been proven in the past that some users get higher or lower prices on certain websites, depending on their online activity. Sadly, this type of price discrimination is common practice across the web, even though it’s frowned upon.

Would you like to further protect your privacy online? If so, then you need to be more proactive about protecting your data and identity online. You can only do this if you are aware of the privacy risks lurking on the open internet.

5 Privacy risks that people often overlook

Using free Google products 

Every product you use on Google’s freemium ecosystem opens you up to countless privacy violations.  In exchange for your privacy, Google gives you these awesome products such as Gmail, Google maps, Android that you don’t need to spend a dime on. Is this a compromise you are willing to make, and do you really need to take it in the first place?
There are proven ways you can use to prevent leaking too much data to Google while using their free services. One of them involves going through their user platform and purging your data on a routine basis.

For instance, you can access your purchase history and use the information feature to delete old receipts from your inbox. You can also go ahead and delete other details like your search history, location history, voice, and audio activity (yes, Google home assistant does record your commands), among others. Of course, Google does not make it easy for you to delete all these details.

For instance, you will need several days, if not weeks, to remove the transnational data stored on your inbox using Google’s user interface. This brings us to the next solution. Downloading a VPN allows you to mask all your online activity, so Google doesn’t access as much data as they wanted on your online activity. It may not help when it comes to Gmail data, but a VPN will help keep your surfing data safe from Google and a bunch of other third-party data collection agencies.

Using voice assistants

To protect your private voice recordings, you should always find a way of accessing your usage history online and deleting what needs to be deleted from time to time. Both Google and Amazon do provide such interfaces for their voice customers, but you may need a bit of patience to delete your data. Alternatively, you could write an email requesting them to remove all your data. They are obliged to do it because of GDPR and other data protection laws around the world.

Popular voice assistants and home hub manufactures are quite open about the data they collect from their customer devices on a daily basis. If you are conscious about your private voice recordings being accessed by a third party, then you should know that using a voice assistant does precisely that. Most of the recordings are used for targeting and improving voice assistants, but sometimes they can get into the wrong hands.

At the same time, it’s always advisable to turn off the voice assistant speaker whenever you are not using it. As it has occurred in the past, some of these smart speakers do listen in on conversation even when you are not issuing voice commands. Lastly, you can opt-out of sharing personal data with Google or Amazon when you are installing the smart speaker for the first time.

False privacy- going incognito

Some people have this false sense of privacy when they open an incognito tab or window in their web browser. They think that going incognito protects them from tracking and data collection plugins like those used by Google and other commercial websites. Sadly, incognito mode isn’t exactly a privacy feature. All it does is to keep your browser from storing cookies and websites you visit. In essence, it helps you to temporarily disable the history and password saving feature on your browser and nothing else.

In truth, most websites and tracking cookies can still access your surfing data even when you go incognito on your browser. The only way you can prevent third-party access to your surfing data is by using a browser-based VPN in the form of an extension. This way, any web browsing data to and from your browser will be passed through a private tunnel, thus cutting the trackers off.

Mobile applications

Mobile apps are notorious for collecting user data without notifying users or asking for permission. With millions of apps on various stores, it’s hard to tell which one is harvesting user data and which one is respecting your privacy. Indeed, there have been some viral apps in the past that turned out to be false positives, mostly used to steal customer data. That launcher or Ping-Pong app you downloaded might be uploading your device data to servers located on the other side of the ocean.

To protect yourself, you should always be wary about the apps you download to your device. Check the developer’s name- is it a reputable company? Does the app have any reviews? What kind of permissions is it asking for? For instance, you should be careful about apps that ask for permission to access your contacts, SMS, and location data.

In conclusion

The business of collecting user data isn’t going away any time soon; it’s booming. While regulators try to catch up with data protection laws, it’s also upon you to adopt new habits in the way you use the web if you care about privacy. At the same time, you should invest in some tools to protect your privacy online.

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