gMail Stores your Contacts, and You Probably Didn’t Realise

I am meticulous when it comes to data security. I avoid storing data in the cloud where possible and only use trusted cloud services from Google, Apple, Dropbox and Microsoft. I’m careful to choose what I share and who I share it with and keep a close eye on the permissions given to apps and services, particularly with regards to social profiles, online communications and contacts. The recent Facebook scandal in which the data of 50 million Facebook users was shared with Cambridge Analytica should serve to demonstrate the importance of security online, and why security should be practiced not only by vast corporations and businesses small and large, but the general public also.

This post however pertains to gmail, a service that I’ve used for the best part of 14 years, almost since its inception in 2004. I’ve had the same gMail address throughout that time and it has probably sent and received tens of thousands of eMails in that time from countless people. I hadn’t realised however that gMail by default stores each and every contact in your address book. This was highlighted when I opted to let LinkedIn search my gMail for possible connections and a surprising number of people were uncovered. Ex clients, old friends and thousands of other names appeared from nowhere dating back over a decade.

After some digging, I opened Google Contacts and searched through Google’s preset contact ‘labels’. Contacts on my devices are synced with iCloud, not google, and so there was no reason for Google to have an up-to-date record of my contact history. It is quite possible that a previous application may have synced its contacts with Google without my knowledge, but that would’ve been years ago and there were several recent contacts that would have appeared long after then. Clicking ‘Other Contacts’ (‘All Contacts’ in the old contacts view) however revealed the list of contacts accumulated over the last 14 years. Google Contacts offers the ability to export contacts to vCard or CSV format and having done that I proceeded to delete the contacts from the database.

To disable this feature, navigate to gMail settings. Next to ‘Create contacts for auto-complete’, choose “I’ll add contacts myself”. Click ‘Save’ and from then on only contacts you manually add or sync will be stored in your Google Contacts address book.

It should be clarified that storing contacts with Google is really not a security risk. However this is worth bearing in mind if you like to keep track of your online data (and you should), and can be particularly annoying if you do sync your Google address book with a mail client or contacts app.