Bits of Simplicity

Taking back control

04/19/2018

Anyone paying attention to the news lately will know that privacy has become a mainstream issue. For years users have been trading their personal data for access to online services. The information economy dominates the modern internet. And with enforcement of GDPR coming into full effect and the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal; it is becoming hard to ignore. More and more users are deleting Facebook and Google accounts in search of more privacy-conscious services. Myself included. I have decided to take back control over my data and services, or at least as much as I can.

Reducing my second & third-party data footprint is no small task. To start with I want to replace as many services I use with FOSS self-hosted ones as I can. For the services that I can't or don't want to self-host, I will use privacy conscious services when I can. The first and most important change is email.

For years I used Gmail as my primary email provider. Ever since I was a teenager, and at the time it was by far the best email provider around. Very little to no spam, and a fantastic fast web client. The company motto of 'do no evil' also resonated with me. But I have since grown up and have realized that if you have to tell yourself to 'do no evil' there is a good chance that you might be doing evil. Not only does Google scan email contents and meta information to power their targeted advertising platform. Users are also completely at the behest of Google and their policies. If you don't play by their rules they can ban you and lose access to your account. To put it simply; you do not own your Gmail address, Google does.

This idea of ownership is actually pretty important. It's the difference between being a peer on the network and being another dumb terminal. An email address is the primary method of contact on the internet. Losing access to an email address can leave you cut off from online services. Having an address that you own on a domain you own; means that you can switch email providers anytime you wish. And not have to worry about updating your address on different online services.

Anyone that has self-hosted email will tell you that it can be a bit of a nightmare. I have done it in the past and don't want to go down that route. Enter ProtonMail. ProtonMail is a secure email provider based in Switzerland that is privacy-focused. All messages are end-to-end encryption with minimal access to user data. They have free accounts, or paid accounts that give you the ability to use your own domain. I have been using them for about three months now, and I can't recommend them enough. Over time I have been updating different services to the new address. It is unlikely that I will completely migrate away from Gmail (at least for now), but it is now my seconded provider.

With email out of the way; the next big second & third-party data footprint is social media. I don't have a Facebook (and never have), and I am not active on Twitter or Google+. I do have Reddit & Hacker News accounts that I use on a regular basis, but I am trying to using those less and less for different reasons. And as odd as it might sound; I do want to be more social on the Internet. But I want control over what I choose to share and who has access to that information. That is where GNU Social and the fediverse come in to play.

GNU Social is a free and open source microblogging platform that you can host yourself. Built on top of OStatus protocol it federates with other platforms such as Mastodon. GNU Social is still a little rough around the edges, but it gets the job done. If you are looking for a more traditional experience then I would suggest giving Mastodon a try.

Taking back control of my media consumption has been a bit of a challenge. One major change is using an RSS reader. Managing my feeds means I am no longer blasted with click-bait useless information, or tracked by every ad network under the sun. If I find a website or blog interesting I add it to my RSS reader. I have been self-hosting an instance of Tiny Tiny RSS reader and is excellent for my needs.

I have moved away from Chrome and back to Firefox. It's fast and lightweight and not maintained by an ad company. Although I have a few issues with Pocket included with Firefox out of the box; it is a good compromise. I have been using Firefox developer edition for a few months at work and have had no major issues.

De-Googling even further I have been using Duck Duck Go as my primary search engine. It has been fantastic. At first, I found myself using bangs to fall back to Google on an almost daily basis, but now I actually find DDG to have better search results. Google's mission has changed from being the best at search to be the best at stealing your attention. When searching for a topic on Google the first page is almost always filled with "news articles" from different "news" sites. They are trying to push larger publishing platforms instead of quality information.

These changes are a small step in the right direction. I can't get back the data that has already been collected, but I can limit my future exposure. Personal privacy isn't dead yet, but if large companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google have their way; it will be. The larger battle over privacy is about to happen, and I for one don't want to give them any more ammo than they already have.