Google Knows What We Spend Even When We Think We’re Offline

Because we’re rarely ever fully offline.

Photo credit: digitalpfade, CC0 Public Domain.

Today in “are we okay with this?” let’s look at the idea that Google is tracking what we do even when we’re offline.

No, wait—first, we need to look at the idea that we’re never offline. When we walk into a store, our phones record our locations. When we make purchases, our credit cards record our locations, as well as what we bought and how much we spent. This information is extremely valuable to a lot of companies, including the big internet company that can both access and synthesize it:

Put A and B together, and suddenly you have a much clearer picture to share with advertisers: Why yes, John Smith did see four ads for your coffee drink online yesterday, before spending exactly what one of those drinks costs at a location of yours near his office. Congratulations, your ads work; spend more money advertising with us now, please.

But how is Google getting all of those As and Bs? As the Washington Post reports, they’re not telling:

Google also declined to detail how the new system works or what companies are analyzing records of credit and debit cards on Google’s behalf. Google, which saw $79 billion in revenue last year, said it would not handle the records directly but that its undisclosed partner companies had access to 70 percent of transactions for credit and debit cards in the United States.

Consumerist notes that a lot of our day-to-day activity and transactions, from both the individual and the corporate end, pass through Google at some point. So Google isn’t necessarily taking anything we haven’t agreed to give it—even if we weren’t fully aware that, for example, giving a business your email address also meant giving that address to Google:

Businesses that collect your email address to track your purchases and send you coupons can import their loyalty program data directly into their Google advertiser account, making it even easier to follow you around everywhere you go. For everyone else, Google says its third-party partnerships capture roughly 70% of all credit and debit card transactions in the U.S.

Are we okay with this? Does it matter? Should we just keep going about our business, knowing that Google (and, let’s be honest, Facebook and Amazon and who knows who else) is tracking everything we do?