When creepy is worth it: tracking purchases with Slice

Slice is an app that will know everything you've ever bought online--but that's actually okay

Heard about personal data security and privacy lately? Oh, yes, you have. Allow me to provide a tonic, a refreshing change of scenery, or, at the very least, a neat app recommendation. It totally opens up a huge part of your life to a corporate entity, but I think you’ll be okay with that. At least if you like to buy things.

Slice is an app that looks through your Gmail or Yahoo Mail account and regularly searches for confirmation messages from retailers, then makes them really simple to track. You can manually feed items to Slice with a standard username/password account, but that’s not all that helpful.

A few purchases in Slice--yes, I really do buy white kitchen towels in 8-packs from Amazon

The real convenience is in having a service that emails you, or sends a ping to your phone, when items are arriving soon, or when prices on your items drop. You can even fine-tune Slice’s inbox scanning to skip the items that aren’t really “delivered” to you, as in the case of a NameCheap domain (shown in image below). Slice also serves as a universal database of purchases for searching them out and enacting returns. Sure, they’re in your inbox, but just try searching the word “Amazon” or “dress” on an inbox that’s more than three years old.

Slice is available for Android and iPhone, and it’s a well-made app all around. But why should we willingly give Slice access to our entire personal inbox, when apps are going before Congress for far less? A few reasons:

  • You know what you’re giving Slice up-front. Slice asks you to give it access to your Gmail or Yahoo account, through an authorization that can be revoked at any time. Other useful apps, like TripIt, have used email scanning to provide services you don’t even have to think about, and without any cause for Google to pull their access.

  • Slice’s privacy policy isn’t quite as good as, say, Aviary’s, but it is relatively short and human-readable. The key elements: Slice does not “rent, share, or sell (personally identifiable information) to advertisers), but it might take note of what you’re buying to show you ads, coupons, and offers. And it might take your buying data, bundle it up anonymously with others, and show someone like, say, Zappos that people who buy sunglasses are far more likely to buy leather shoes.

  • The idea of a computer script looking through your email is, indeed, creepy. What’s even creepier, though, is the idea of inadvertently leaving a package in your apartment lobby, so everyone can see that you’re ordering new sheets. Or letting an opportunistic jerk snatch the external hard drive you ordered, because the FedEx delivery person likes to knock with the might of an infant mouse.

To my mind, Slice is a prime example of an up-front trade-off. You’re letting a computer see what you buy, but, then again, Gmail and Yahoo already see that and more as they customize webmail ads for you. In return, you’re getting push notifications on your phone when your package arrived in your town’s shipping center, so you know for certain whether to listen for the rumble of the package truck. Everything is up-front, understandable by humans, and easy to break off, if you decide you want Slice out of your inbox. Simple, single-purpose, and slick.

Kevin Purdy writes ITworld's Mobilize! blog. Follow Kevin on Twitter at . For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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