Technology

Why I bought my own email service and stopped giving away my data

I ‘ve been a Gmail user since it first became available in beta through an invite-only system back in 2005 or so, but recent concerns over the data that gets tracked, collected, and stored for uses beyond email caused me to find a replacement option. Luckily, thanks to my dedicated cloud server and domain for my blog, setting up my own custom email address was incredibly easy. Now I’m not longer paying for a “free” email service with my personal data and ad targeting, but am just paying for the infrastructure itself and know my data is under my control.

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I’ve loved Gmail since it’s very first days. I remember harassing friends in college to get an invite, as well as monitoring the secondary market of invites for sale when it first came out. Yes, it was so revolutionary at the time that people were actually paying for the privilege of online email. The huge additional storage it offered and slimed down web interface were truly differentiating and people couldn’t wait to move over. Plus, the cache of a @gmail address separated the tech savvy from those with Hotmail or Yahoo emails.

In the intervening years, things have changed. Gmail’s spam filtering and size capacity still make it unique, but the continued focus from Google to use data across applications and services as well as the improvement of email generally means that the advantages are less compelling now. For instance, it was recently revealed that Google uses order confirmation emails to build up a shopping history for the Google assistant, so anything ever bought online, from anywhere, to a gmail address is tracked and maintained by Google and can be used for other purposes in the future. This data is retained even when emails are deleted. As a result, I decided it was time to move my purchases and primary accounts off of Google and to my own domain.

Because my website and blog run on AWS, it’s was incredibly easy to set up my own email in short order using the awesome, though meant for much larger organizations WorkMail. With a few clicks through the AWS console, I was able to register my domain, create an email address, and even set up policies for it. Because I had registered my blog’s domain name with Route53, it just showed up in the allowed domains for WorkMail, and even handled setting up all the DNS settings for me.

Once this was created, I added a user for myself – I could easily add others who want to be on my same domain – and configured details like the mailbox size – a pretty impressive 50 GB is standard, mobile device rules and policies – much like my work email, I have the ability to remotely wipe details if the device is lost or stolen, and even fine grained permission to various email clients. For only $4 a month, I had more storage than I did on Gmail, no ads, no tracking, and access in just as many places.

In fact, like Gmail, I can access this email through a website with the pretty solid Exchange Web client or through basically any desktop and mobile email application. On my computer, I easily et up Mozilla’s Thunderbird, an email program I hadn’t really used since moving to Gmail, and forgot how good it actually is. Plus, did I mention, no tracking? On my phone I was able to use the excellent Outlook mobile application, though I need to do some more research as supposedly Microsoft does some tracking of emails that come through it, though I don’t know to what extent. If I’m going to go all in on privacy, I might need to find a more privacy focused mobile app.

I know the old saying is that you only need privacy if you have something to hide, but I’m honestly just tired of giving giant companies my data for free for the use of their services. Instead of paying the hidden implicit cost of providing them with my data, I would rather explicitly pay for a given service and know all those costs in an upfront way. I don’t have anything to hide in my order history for example, but what if one day this gets sold to insurance who decides when I’m older my rates should be higher because of results from my genetic testing (ordered with a Gmail address) or because I’m clearly a runner (based on device purchases). I believe it is time to take my data back and own it myself. I can’t prevent individual sites and companies from tracking me, but I can at least try to make it harder for a single massive one to do so.

This follows a similar move I’ve made to more privacy focused software recently. I’ve been trying out Brave, the privacy first browser recently, and it’s actually pretty good. Thunderbird is also privacy focused, blocking cookies and tracker images by default. I’ve also switched to DuckDuckGo and found the results to be just as good. No longer does a focus on privacy mean sacrificing good services. Additionally, I’ve decided it’s time to start paying for things I find useful on the internet and breaking the demand for everything to appear free but being subsidized by personal data tracking and ads. In the case of email, I get enough utility from my own domain that it’s worth managing myself and paying AWS a little each month since they provide a valuable service and I get to keep all my data.