Technology

I’m done giving tech companies my personal and private data

It’s been a while coming, but this week finally broke the straw for me. I’m sick of giving tech companies my private information, personal data, or contributing content to them for free for whatever limited functionality I get from them. Instead of the promised convenience and supposedly better and better “personalization”, all we’re getting it more invasive targeting, sales and leaks of our personal data, and building up more giant companies with the free content we provide. I’m done with it.

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Maybe this began last year when I decided for 2019 I would delete my Facebook account and apps built by them like Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. This was no easy task as I was a huge social media sharer, never reaching any type of influential status, but still probably sharing something at least 4 or more times a day and to hundreds of friends, family, and followers. I realized that I was no longer getting utility from this sharing, was getting anxiety about sharing in return, and managed to feel even less connected to the world. As a parent, I was using the networks more and more to share updates on my twins to family.

Facebook never squared fully with me. Their values never seemed to prioritize privacy or control from the beginning with convoluted settings and several leaks and scandals even in the early days. Apologies for these were weak and never seemed to result in any actual change. Going into last year, things got even worse with continued leaks, ethical quandaries, and lack of substantive response. I could no longer feel safe and secure in sharing pictures and details of my children without their consent, and decided to delete my account.

Recently though, I’ve become even more worried about the kind of data that companies collect in perpetuity. There’s not only the content I upload myself, often without thinking of the implications, but there’s also the tremendous amount of personal tracking that occurs across numerous sites. The number of sites and properties so many tech companies have bought up and integrated over the years means that companies like Facebook and Google with their huge advertising networks can easily track me across pretty much the entire web. With Chrome, Google can, and literally does exactly that. The more I thought about this, the more terrifying a prospect it became.

It’s an old cliché that if you don’t pay for a product, the product is actually you. Or alternatively, if you don’t pay with money, you’re paying with your private information either “enhancing” products, or being sold directly to third parties. I couldn’t bear this any more and decided it was time to start removing myself from this equation. No longer will I be the product, or provide valuable information to companies for free. Even if it means more work to run systems myself or use less than perfect alternative products, or even change my lifestyle like getting off of Facebook and Instagram, I’m going to make every effort to do so.

Facebook has always been somewhat obvious that they didn’t have users’ best interests at heart, but I always believe Google actually did. Even though their core product and income has always come from advertising and using user data to create a valuable advertising network, their insistence to not be evil and social mindedness convinced me that it was worth the risk to use their products. Plus so many were so game-changingly good like the original introduction of search, Gmail, Chrome, and Maps, that I just couldn’t’ live without them. However, recently the company has seemed to change the equation and continues to put user data collection over products. Chrome has been exposed as a privacy tracking nightmare and looks posed to do very little to limit the amount of tracking and advertising across the web, disappointing from the leading browser by market share, but not surprising considering how it makes money for Google. Even more worrying are recent reports about how data from other core products like Gmail are being used to augment tracking, including recently showing how every single order placed using a Gmail address, regardless if Google was involved or not, is tracked and stored by Google for eternity. This is especially terrifying to me as it shows Google using one product in an unexpected way to bolster its tracking and advertising and clearly shows me that they won’t place barriers between products if it means they can find more ways to make money without users’ consent.

It’s incredibly difficult to get away from Google’s products though. Gmail has been my primary email address since college when I got an original invite while it was still in invite-only beta. I’m certainly not going to Hotmail, AppleMail, or Yahoo, email address domains that always make me think slightly less of the user. Instead, I decided it was time to take my data back, and actually run my own email server. I already owned this web domain, so adding an email address to dadontherunblog.com was fairly easy. I was actually able to do it inside my AWS account in under five minutes. Now I can have more storage than Google actually offers – 50 GB, meaning I can also keep emails forever, and I have a vanity email address to use personally. Now I just need to switch over all my accounts. Sure I have to pay $4 / month for the service, but it’s worth it knowing that an unknown amount of information isn’t being scanned and stored from every one of my emails and used without my knowledge. It was also easy to set up on my phone and laptop with Mozilla’s Thunderbird email client (desktop) and paid Outlook (no ads or tracking – Android).

As one of the biggest soakers of personal data, I also knew I’d have to get rid of Chrome. I had used the browser extensively since it came out since the speed improvements were so massive over other browsers. Like many others, I abandoned Firefox for Chrome and barely looked back. However, Firefox is back and better than ever with much better performance, fewer slowdowns with many tabs open, and most importantly, industry leading privacy improvements. It also allows easy importing of settings and bookmarks from Chrome, making the migration a snap. Most addons from Chrome are also supported, so there are really no features I miss. Now I don’t have to worry about every single page I visit getting reported back to Google for tracking. With Firefox, I don’t miss Chrome at all and I even use it on my phone now. I haven’t yet tried it out, but numerous people have also recommended the privacy-first Brave Browser which blocks all ads and tracking as well.

Perhaps the oldest habitual product I used that I wanted to get away from was Google search itself. I suppose I’m old, but I can vividly remember first discovering Google in high school and it completely changing the web for me from the older days of searching with Alta Vista, Yahoo, and Lycos. Google meant I could actually find things on the web. These days though, this is a much more solved problem. Plenty of other search engines can perform just as well. Google’s main advantages lie in the use of personalization to tailor results based on perceived interests and other history. They also do well where other products like maps can be integrated for results. However, I’ve found that the privacy focused search engine, Duck Duck Go performs just as well as Google Search, is as snappy, and gives me the same relevant content. Plus, they do not collect my data.

The most recent change I’ve made, and one I find hard to break the old habit of especially on mobile, is Google Maps. Honestly there is nothing else even close to as good as it. The directions, live traffic conditions, routing, and business information is unparalleled. Apple is trying to get there with its Apple Maps, and they’ve made strides, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s unclear exactly how much Google uses user data from Maps elsewhere, but data like my home address, work, frequently visited spots, and every single place I search for is simply too valuable to continue to share. Even worse, I was willingly sharing reviews frequently to the platform and saving my interests in various lists. There are other mapping platforms like Bing and Here, but it’s not very clear how much data they collect and the routing is nowhere near as good. Duck Duck Go is switching to Apple Maps for privacy as well, but it’s not usable on other mobile platforms where it’s most useful.

Without a doubt the biggest gap in this change is my mobile phone itself. My Google Pixel running Android simply doesn’t allow me to get away from apps like Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, and others. While I can use other options in some cases, there is a tremendous amount of Google built in that just can’t be removed. The performance itself, as well as the availability of apps, may be the primary reason I’m considering a switch back to an iPhone this fall, but the privacy and commitment to it Apple is repeatedly prioritizing certainly helps.

It’s not only Google though that I’m done giving free data to. While Google owns many of the services I use on a daily basis, there are plenty of other companies that I’m finding ways to part with. I’ve been a Yelp Elite contributor for five years now, writing over 1200 reviews for the platform. While I do get recognition, swag, and the occasional free event from contributing, I’ve essentially been freelancing for free for the platform for years. I don’t know if my location history or trends from my visits are shared with partners, but even if not, a leak of data from the platform could mean a huge amount of my personal data is leaked. I’m done giving away this data.

Facebook also isn’t the only social media platform I use. I’m also pretty active on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Strava. I find I do actually get more utility from each of these, Twitter for news, LinkedIn for networking and recruiting for work, and Strava for a community with my fellow runners. However, I realize that I’m still continuing to give away free contributions to these platforms and likely their advertisers. For now, the benefit of these platforms outweigh those risks, but it’s only a matter of time until it flips. Twitter in particular seems likely to cross this boundary soon. It won’t need to do much considering I honestly don’t get a ton out of the platform any more. At least Microsoft makes money elsewhere and doesn’t really need ads supported by data from LinkedIn (for now) and I support Strava with a monthly subscription.

This raises another important point, which is how important it is to actually support platforms that provide value with subscriptions or payment when possible, otherwise they fall back to relying on other means – turning you into the product – to make money. I pay for Strava now on a monthly basis because I find the motivation useful and worthwhile. I also pay for the podcasts I enjoy on Patreon and I’m paying Mozilla now that I find Firefox and Thunderbird indispensable. Paying for these products keeps them ad-free and helps ensure the companies can both stay in business and continue to support these products. It’s easy to forget in an age of free and fremium apps especially on mobile platforms, but good software does deserve to be paid for.

Maybe I’m just getting older and have begun to form stronger values and ideas of what matters in my daily usage, but I’m finding more and more of my technology and software choices have to square with my own personal beliefs and values. No longer can I support convenient technologies that are at odds with my world view. Instead, I’ve decided it’s important to vote with my dollars, the same way I chose socially conscious clothing brands, restaurants, or coffee companies. While the product itself matters, in today’s age products are increasingly platforms, and platforms are heavily influenced by the values of their brand. I’m done supporting the brands that prioritize themselves over their users and have no qualms about selling or otherwise using user data without consent.