Digital Privacy, Part 1

Digital privacy has been a personal focus of mine since the 2018 Facebook user data scandals shined a bright light on a festering problem. I am appalled at the number of data breaches but also the quantity of and general use of my personal information by many companies. Since then, I have taken the following steps to curb the amount of my personal data being collected:

  • Deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts
  • Stopped using Google Hangouts and Google Voice for any communications
  • Shifted email away from Gmail as my primary provider
  • Signed up for a new personal email account at ProtonMail, a privacy-minded email provider
  • Signed up for a new generic email account at Fastmail to use for all non-personal exchanges
  • Use NordVPN on my mobile whenever I’m on WiFi
  • Use Firefox Focus as my primary web browser on my mobile
  • Installed uBlock Origin on my desktop Firefox browser
  • Converted search engine use to StartPage and DuckDuckGo
  • Installed two additional map providers on my mobile (maps.me and HERE WeGo)
  • Signed out of my profile on Google Maps on my mobile
  • Spread my mobile mapping use across four providers (Apple Maps, Google Maps, maps.me, HERE WeGo) to reduce the quantity of location data any one provider stores about me
  • Signed up for Signal for encrypted text messaging
  • Bought a new home router which supports OpenVPN profiles and supports traffic logging/analyzing
  • Started using Jitsi Meet for personal video conferencing
  • Reduce use of Reddit
  • Use APNews.com for my primary news source

All of these steps have been largely painless. Untangling my digital use of Google services has been the biggest effort and one that is still ongoing. I still have the Gmail app installed on my mobile and continue to receive multiple emails a day though primarily for web services that I have yet to update.

The top three nuts I have yet to crack are:

  • Stopping use of YouTube (owned by Google)
  • Enabling VPN on my home router without getting blocked by Netflix and Amazon Prime Video
  • Exiting the Apple iPhone platform

YouTube. I use YouTube a lot. Admittedly, more than I should. My primary use is “I’m bored, I have five minutes to spare, let’s see what’s new” and honestly I can live without that. What I lament missing out on is storing subscriptions to producers I follow for stuff like yoga, film analysis, and game coverage. There are workarounds for this but I haven’t felt compelled to act on it just yet. YouTube is one of those platforms that does get better with more information, I just wish I could use it (read: pay for it) without Google leveraging my information elsewhere.

VPN and streaming video providers. This one annoys me to no end. I can plug a major data leak by enabling VPN on my home router and grant coverage to my wife and mother-in-law at the same time. The problem is that streaming video providers Netflix and Amazon Prime Video block traffic originating from VPN services. Their obligation is to curb viewers reaching regional content they don’t have a license to servce. I get it. Honestly I don’t need any of our video streaming traffic run through a VPN. It’s a waste of the VPN provider’s bandwidth, there isn’t any region-locked content we’re trying to access, and I don’t care if Comcast can see we are using those services so long as the content accessed is not visible. It would be great if I could enable VPN at our router with exceptions for those providers.

Apple iPhone. I’ve been an iPhone customer since the 3G model. It’s a great device. My personal perception of Apple is that they prioritize customer security and privacy enough that I don’t need to cut and run. I’ve had my eye on the Librem 5 device for two years now and if it ever comes to market I would consider switching. In my heart of hearts, I fantasize about not having a mobile device at all. Is anyone out there with me on that?

Finally, the biggest company that has wide access to my data is Amazon. I’m an Amazon customer for shopping, web services like streaming video and photos, and have multiple Amazon devices throughout our home. I’m also an employee of Amazon Web Services. As both a customer and employee, Amazon has established enough trust with me that I’m ok with the data they collect. For now. They could be more open about what exactly they share with some of their business partners on their privacy page. It claims they don’t sell any customer information, but the verbiage on sharing gives them blanket coverage to share anything.

At the end of the day, every one of us has control over how much data we let the web companies collect on us, because anyone can choose not to use them at all. The problem we have yet to solve is how to limit that data when it is anything more than zero. That’s a whole other subject. For now, what I recommend to people is to think critically about what they’re comfortable with. When I lose trust in a company, I’m going to stop using them. For me, Facebook and anything they own is right out. I don’t inherently trust Google anymore and I’m divesting myself from their ecosystem. All the other steps I’m taking exist to reduce my overall surface area of free data to corporate actors.