logoBrett Rawlins

Taking Back My Data

August 22, 2021

Recently I finished a big project that took a few months to complete. I decided to migrate all of my family's data away from Google products and host some of it on my own server. Over the years, without fully realizing it I had given control of nearly all of my data to big tech companies, in particular Google.

These companies offer really useful services for free. But "free" is not really free. There is always a cost. Unfortunately, I think we often trade our privacy for convenience without really thinking about the implications.

Motivation

This move was really prompted by two factors: privacy and censorship. Big tech companies track everything you do online, and then mine your data to build a profile on you so they can sell your attention to advertisers. I don't like the idea that Google knows everything about me: everything I search for, where I go physically, all of my files and photos, all my calls and messages, my calendar, my contacts, ...everything really.

The other reason was the censorship and cancel culture we've seen so much of lately by big tech corporations, like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google, and Apple. Repeatedly, we've seen these corporations use their power to silence speech that they disagree with, and deplatform and "cancel" people with opposing viewpoints. As a freedom-loving patriot I cannot tolerate that, and I will not give any more of my time, attention, or money to companies who censor or cancel their users.

Criteria

I wanted to maintain the basic level of functionality that my family was used to, but also have privacy. I wanted to be able to share calendars, files, and tasks with my wife, have contacts work with my phone, have files sync between devices, etc. I also needed something that would work on different platforms: Mac or Windows, Android or iOS.

In terms of privacy, I wanted to meet these specific criteria. The service:

  • does not track me
  • does not sell my data to advertisers
  • does not store my data unless it's encrypted
  • does not censor content
  • provides end-to-end encryption
  • is not hosted on (dependent on) other big tech that could take it down

Alternatives

I did a lot of research and tried out a lot of different products. Here are the best replacement apps I found:

Most of these services are free. A few have a free base level and charge for extras. Some of them are self-hosted, which is not for everyone, but there are also hosted alternatives that use end-to-end encryption.

Getting Started

Probably the easiest way to get started is to simply switch to a privacy browser. This doesn't cost you anything and you can still use the internet as you normally do. Brave is an excellent choice, especially if you're used to Chrome. Firefox or DuckDuckGo are also good choices. These browsers don't track where you go or what you search for on the web.

One thing to keep in mind here, is that you also need to switch your search engine. Google is usually the default search engine in most browsers, so unless you change that setting, you'll just be using Google to search in a different browser. DuckDuckGo is a good option for a privacy-based search engine. (Note: DuckDuckGo is a search engine, but they also have a browser too)

The next thing I'd recommend is to use a secure messaging app. Text messages are notoriously insecure, yet we use them for some of our most personal conversations. I would recommend Signal. Many of the other secure messaging apps only allow you to message people who are also using the app. Since all your friends and family are not likely to switch with you, that's a pretty big hurdle. Signal lets you message anyone, but it can only encrypt the message if the other party is also using Signal. This way you can continue to message anyone as normal, while you try to convince your friends and family to switch to Signal to get the benefits of secure communication :).

The next thing I'd look at is your email and calendar. This is where you may have to pay for a service, but personally, I'm okay with paying a little for privacy. Proton Mail is the best provider I've found. Their base service is actually free, so you can try it out with no risk. You get 500 MB of storage for free. If you want more storage or options like email filters or custom domains, you'll pay about $5/month. You can't even go out to lunch with a friend for that, so I think it's pretty reasonable.

I think those three things give you a pretty good foundation, and then you can prioritize more as you wish. The biggest thing is just to be aware of what's happening with your data - where it resides, and whether it's secure or not. Being informed is always good, and being aware of the tradeoffs you make when a product is "free" of charge.