A few months ago, the Verge leaked a training video from Google. The video, obviously not intended for public distribution, described the data produced by a girl on her cell phone – all snatched up by Google without her awareness.
That data, according to the video, “describes our actions, decisions, preferences, movement, and relationships.” Google uses the analogy of a ledger, with the data siphoned off the web by the internet giant being “a constantly evolving representation of who we are.”
The ledger, of course, is you. And the video made it clear that Google believes you do not own the data about you, but that you are merely a “transient carrier” of it. What’s more, Google suggests that over time, it could provide “more inputs” to the ledger with the goal of modifying your behavior.
One example of more inputs is Google’s purchase of the marketing network DoubleClick in 2007. At the time, Google founder Sergey Brin said privacy would be our “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.” But a decade later, Google changed its terms of service to state that your browsing habits “may be” combined with other data to which Google has access. This includes the contents of your Gmail messages, records of your Google Maps searches, your Google calendar appointments, and anything else it can scrape from your browsing records.
This data is also available for hackers to help themselves to – or the government. Indeed, Google just dropped its Google+ social networking app after hackers stole data on 500,000 of its users. Google also helps governments conduct mass surveillance through data collection. In just the first six months of 2018, Google received nearly 60,000 disclosure requests from government authorities.
This is the company, don’t forget, with a corporate slogan of “don’t be evil.” Give me a break!
Fortunately, if you want to disconnect completely from Google, alternatives are available. And even if you want to continue using Google’s search engine and Google Maps, you can protect yourself from the company using that data to build your ledger.
The first step is to stop using any of Google’s splendidly designed, but privacy-invading apps, especially Gmail and Google Calendar. There are numerous alternatives to Gmail; my favorite is Swiss-based Protonmail. It provides end-to-end encryption for all messages delivered on its network and doesn’t share the content of your messages with anyone. Because of the way Protonmail is designed, the company can’t deliver your messages in an unencrypted form even if it receives a court order to do so.
Likewise, many alternatives exist for Google Calendar. One that offers many of the same features is Zoho Calendar, part of a suite of apps designed to rival Google Apps. Since Zoho is US-based, your data could conceivably be retrieved by a government agency, but the company doesn’t scrape your data to sell to third parties or build the type of ledger application to which Google aspires.
A great alternative to Google’s search engine is DuckDuckGo (DDG). It bills itself as “the search engine that doesn’t track you.” To pay for itself, DDG displays advertising, but it’s not based on the contents of your searches, and your search history always remains private. However, I find that the search results DDG gives me generally aren’t as relevant as those I get from Google.
A VPN constructs an encrypted data channel between your PC or smartphone and the internet so that your data stream can’t be monitored. That makes it impossible for hackers to steal log-in data or other sensitive information. It also makes it impossible for Google or any other website to personally identify you unless you’re using an app like Gmail.
While you’re saying goodbye to Google, it wouldn’t hurt to use the company’s own tools to delete as much of the data it has collected about you as possible. The first step is to set up your browser so that it deletes all cookies and site data when you exit. You can block cookies and site data when you’re browsing, but if you do that many websites won’t load properly, if at all. In Firefox, go to options/privacy and security to changes these settings. In Chrome, go to chrome://settings/.
Next, use Google’s own tools to delete searches and other activity from your account. You’ll find the instructions to do so at this link. You’ll likely be stunned by the array of data the company collects. Once you’re done, check to make sure you’ve deleted everything you can by using Google’s download your data tool.
As with everything else privacy-related, big brother and big business have a vested interest in keeping tabs on you. Not only is it profitable but an up-to-date and easily-retrievable ledger makes it simple to monitor you if you ever step out of line.
That means no one will protect your privacy for you – you need to do it on your own. Now would be a good time to start.