Photo by Glen Carrie
Let me start off by stating that I am not an online privacy expert. I’m merely a concerned consumer who has worked on internet-based products and services for a number of years (which is the only reason I have any idea how this surveillance technology works).
In the past year, I’ve ended my use of location “check-in” services like Foursquare/Swarm, deleted my Facebook and Instagram accounts, and ended my use of Google services like Gmail, Maps and Search.
My goal is to limit the information that these companies and their partners can collect about me, and the reason I don’t want them to collect this information is because they use it to target me with specific advertisements and other manipulative content, such as political propaganda, and anti-vax misinformation.
This short video from Internet privacy company DuckDuckGo does a good job of explaining what Google and Facebook do with your data.
So, what can you do about it? Here are a few recommendations, based on my experience:
Facebook (and Instagram, and WhatsApp)
Based on the amount of negative press they’ve received, Facebook (and the companies they own, such as Instagram and Whatsapp) is likely the most prolific collector of personal data online, and also the most egregious abuser of their members’ privacy.
If you’re unfamiliar with their astonishing legacy of disrespect for your privacy and, frankly, for straight-up unethical behavior, take a look at this list of Facebook’s biggest failures and this timeline of Facebook’s privacy issues. Both were published by major news outlets (CBS and NBC, respectively), so even if you’re unfamiliar with the underlying technology, you’ll likely be able to understand the issues they cover.
My recommendation with regard to Facebook is simply to delete your account.I know of no way to maintain a Facebook account without severely compromising your online privacy. The information on the Delete Facebook Account website matches my experience and covers the main gotchas and concerns that will come up as you go through the deletion process.
Those familiar with online privacy issues will surely mention the problem of shadow profiles - basically, the set of information that Facebook can collect about you, even if you don’t have a Facebook account.
Unfortunately, Facebook does not offer a way to delete shadow profiles at this time, but this piece about shadow profiles, from The Verge, does a good job of explaining what they are and the associated risks. Despite not being able to access or delete your shadow profile, I suspect privacy-minded people are still better off deleting their Facebook accounts (which is what I’ve done).
Google (especially Chrome, Gmail, Maps, and Search)
The next greatest set of threats, in my opinion, comes from Google.
I think the privacy implications of allowing a company to know every website you’ve visited, everything you’ve searched for, and where you’re located are pretty obvious, so I won’t discuss them here, except to offer some alternatives.
I know a lot of people like the Chrome browser, but by using it, you’re making it really easy for Google to track everything you see on the web. For Apple users, I recommend Safari. It’s an absolutely stellar browser that supports anti-tracking and ad-blocking extensions on iOS, iPadOS, and MacOS. Personally, I use Better as my in-browser privacy tool of choice on those three platforms. I find it works really well and doesn’t cause a lot of problems, like some blockers.
For maps, I have switched to Apple Maps. Depending on where you live, Apple Maps may or may not be a viable alternative to Google Maps. For me, it works great, though I occasionally use Waze (which is owned by Google) for longer road trips because it has the best traffic and accident data.
For search, I’ve been using DuckDuckGo almost exclusively for about a year. Again, for me, it works great, and on the rare occasion that I can’t find what I’m looking for, I can always give Google Search a try. You don’t have go cold-turkey with any of these services, but the less you use Google, the more difficult it will be for them to surveil your online activity and target you with specific advertisements and manipulative content.
Finally, onto what may be the biggest online privacy hole for many people: email. I had been using Gmail (Gsuite, actually) as my email provider for years, until recently. I honestly didn’t think it was an issue, because in 2017 Google announced that they would stop personalizing Gmail ads based on its scanning of words in email messages. That was just a smokescreen though, because as I learned later, they didn’t stop scanning emails for information and they also didn’t stop using that information to target people with specific advertisements, they just stopped doing that targeting within Gmail. I think this Forbes piece, “Google Still Doesn’t Care About Your Privacy” is where I first learned about this.
So I’ve known that Gmail was a privacy hole for a while, but let’s face it, switching email providers is a pain in the ass. Because of the time I’d need to invest, it just wasn’t a priority until this May, when CNBC reported that Google uses Gmail to track a history of things you buy.
I immediately began searching for an alternative, evaluating the Helmappliance, ProtonMail and others before finally settling on iCloud, Apple’s simple email and calendar service. It’s not big on features, but it’s reliable and Apple treats privacy as a human right.
So, here we are. As Facebook, Google and other technology companies double-down on their surveillance capitalism business models, I’ll continue to find and use privacy-focused alternatives to their services. My choices and the moves I’ve made to avoid being tracked and targeted with specific advertisements and manipulative content are far from perfect, but they are a start. If I can help you make some of these decisions for yourself, send me an email.
If you’re looking to learn more about this topic, I recommend watching Netflix’s excellent documentary, The Great Hack, which examines how Cambridge Analytica exploited Facebook users and the process of how that came to light in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.