I’ve been taking step-by-step action to reduce my exposure to the services most likely to have links with or be infiltrated by the NSA.
My aim is to try and remove my reliance on such services and replace them with more secure and reliable alternatives.
But there’s also another issue at stake here.
The extent to which our online data is becoming increasingly accessible, controlled and “data mined” and used by big IT and Web corporates for their own benefit. Google of course being the prime example here.
So I call this disengaging process “de-googling”.
- 1 Why “de-Google”?
- 2 You Don’t Have To Be A Slave To Google
- 3 Give Google a Slap back!
- 4 Replace Microsoft and Apple with Linux
- 5 Change Your Web Browser
- 6 Switch Your Search Engine to StartPage and Ixquick
- 7 Reduce Your Involvement with Social Media
- 8 Use Hushmail for Email
- 9 Alternatives To Mainstream Cloud Storage
- 10 Use Open Office and OwnCloud
- 11 Use KeePass for Passwords
- 12 Encrypt Your Data
- 13 Secure Your Internet Connection with Tor
- 14 Don’t Forget Your Firewall and Virus Protection
- 15 There’s No 100% Privacy On The Web
There are basically two main reasons to de-Google.
First, the US NSA’s spying on the data of both American, as well as non-American, citizens in other countries.
And secondly, the extent to which commercial organizations are increasingly gaining access and control over our data.
Even without the NSA, Google has already become too big and too powerful. Google now has it’s tentacles spread so widely and intrusively. And it’s getting worse all the time.
You Don’t Have To Be A Slave To Google
Too many web and e-commerce people are terrified of “upsetting Google” for fear of damaging their business. Or they worry about becoming a recipient of the dreaded “Google Slap”.
They need reminding that Google is not the Internet. It never was. And let’s hope it never will be.
Google is a part of the Internet. A large part and a powerful part, but still just one part of it.
I’m not prepared to sacrifice my morals and standards just for the sake of a few bucks today or for fear of “upsetting Google”. That’s pathetic. You can be in online business and still maintain moral standards.
My approach may make me a rare breed of business person. But so be it.
Give Google a Slap back!
Don’t forget that you yourself can give Google a “slap”. Though I think Google probably needs more than just a slap.
I mention Google and I use the term “de-Google”. But it isn’t actually just about Google.
Google are the biggest data collectors and players in the online space.
But there are other big names too, such as Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, Flickr, Hotmail and Bing, to name the most prominent.
To borrow from their own legalese, the problem is: “including, but not limited to, Google”.
There are also the cloud storage services, such as Amazon S3, Dropbox, Skydrive and others.
We’ve come to take them for granted. And in doing so, they have been able to amass considerable power over us and our data.
Then there’s the big computer software providers themselves such as Microsoft and Apple.
Many people suspect that these operating systems have covert back-doors built into them as standard to allow government surveillance agents to snoop into people’s computers.
So if we are going to try and protect our data from the snooping of big corporates and governments, then we are first going to have to start with the operating system.
Replace Microsoft and Apple with Linux
Did you know that your copy and installation of Microsoft Windows or Apple iOS are not even your property – despite the fact that you paid money to purchase your copy of them?
If you read the gobbeldy-gook legalese that constitutes your EULA or “End User Licensing Agreement” you’ll find it states that you are only granted a very restricted user license and nothing more.
These systems are also technically a black box. A black box to which you have no legal right of access. It’s even forbidden to try and reverse engineer Windows or Apple iOS. What really goes on inside the black box that forms the operating system of your computer is something of which you can never be sure.
My advice: consider switching from Windows or Apple to Linux. This is what I did a few years back.
Since Linux is open source software rather than a closed proprietary system, any back-doors placed in the system usually get uncovered very quickly by the developer community.
Linux is safer and more secure than Windows or Apple. You’ll be at less risk from computer viruses, firewall intrusion, trojans and hacker activity. Using Linux is also cheaper than using proprietary operating systems and proprietary software.
Most software that the average private and business user requires is available free of charge perfectly legally for Linux as open source. Linux itself is also basically free.
It’s true Linux has traditionally been complex to use for the average computer user and not as suited to the desktop as Windows or Apple.
But newer, more user friendly Linux systems such as Ubuntu, Mint or Debian now make Linux much easier for desktop users.
I’ve used many different Linux systems, both for personal as well as business professional use. But my current personal favourite for the desktop without a doubt has to be Linux Ubuntu.
You can download Linux Ubuntu or any practically any other Linux from the web for free and start installing it on your computer right away.
Change Your Web Browser
I used to be a fan of Google Chrome. It’s fast and unbloated. Plus it interfaces easily with Google’s services.
But if you don’t rely on Google’s services anymore, then you also have less need to use Google Chrome. So I’ve now gone back to Firefox.
I’m not entirely satisfied with Firefox. I find Firefox to be slower, bloated and not such a comfortable user experience.
So I’m on the look out for another alternative. Right now I’m trying out Chromium. Even though it’s an offshoot of Google Chrome.
Switch Your Search Engine to StartPage and Ixquick
I never much bothered with Yahoo’s search engine or any of the other less well-known ones.
Like most people, my search engine of choice has long been Google. But when you’re de-googling, by definition Google has to be one of the first things to go.
These are both meta search engines rather than search engines with their own databases.
In other words, they forward your query on to other search engines and then display the search responses they receive back.
The plus side is that this process does not reveal your computer’s information to the search engines they consult.
There’s a small and subtle difference between the two.
StartPage.com interacts with Google. ixquick.com on the other hand uses other search engines instead of Google.
So if you want to avoid Google completely, ixquick is probably the better alternative. Both are run by a company based in the Netherlands.
I’m also trialling another search engine called DuckDuckGo.com. Even if the name is daft.
Reduce Your Involvement with Social Media
As for Facebook, ideally I’d prefer to just close my account.
But it’s useful for keeping in contact with people. You can use it as a kind of online phone book. It’s also probably a good idea to keep your account if only to prevent other people trying to register an account in your name.
But like the old phone book entries, there’s no need to fill your Facebook profile with personal information.
I’ve reduced my personal information on Facebook to the minimum. Plus I deleted practically all my photos.
As for the information you supply to Facebook, such as date of birth etc: it doesn’t have to be entirely accurate if you don’t want it to be. No need for Zuckerberg and his NSA friends to know your real details.
One thing about social media is that it’s notoriously fickle. It has a very short “half-life”. Facebook may be the fashion at the moment. But for how much longer?
Flickr: Like many people Flickr was my repository for my photo collection.
But the fact is, anything you store on Flickr becomes subject to Flickr’s copyright terms. Is that what you want?
It’s not what I want. My photos should remain my property and my copyright. So I now keep my photos on my computer and back them up on my selected cloud services. I don’t store anything on Flickr anymore.
What about Amazon, Ebay and others?
These services track what you search for on their site and even which pages you look at.
So you might want to sign out of such online services before you do any searching on their sites.
As for Google Enterprise Apps: I’ve closed my Google business account and also my private account. I no longer use Google Drive.
Google Analytics: This is, alas, still the industry standard for e-commerce and online media statistics services. But there are a number of alternatives available, such as Clicky or Open Web Analytics.
Use Hushmail for Email
I no longer use Yahoo Mail for anything other than for login registrations for third party websites.
The company that runs ixquick and startpage are currently working on a secure web-based email service which will be called startmail.
I recommend hushmail.com. This is an encrpyted webmail service. It’s free for users for up to 25MB of mail storage space, but you must login to the service at least once every 3 weeks or the account is closed.
Hushmail are based in Canada so should be at least a little less at risk from the demands of the US NSA.
Otherwise I now only use my own email domain for my email service. This is the best solution, provided you trust your web-hosting provider – and depending on the jurisdiction under which the provider falls.
Alternatives To Mainstream Cloud Storage
What really happens to your data when you store it in the cloud? No one knows for sure.
I used to use many of the big-name cloud providers. Not any more.
I’ve now said goodbye to Google Drive, Dropbox, SugarSync – and the big ones in the box: Amazon S3 and Amazon Cloud.
I would never go near Microsoft Skydrive because of the way Microsoft snoops into your data. Several well publicized scandals have illustrated this.
The only cloud storage system I now use is Symform.
Symform is an encrypted peer to peer storage system. They offer 10GB of space free of charge to every user. You can add to your available storage simply by providing storage to the Symform network. This is on the basis of 1 for 2. In other words, for every 2GB you make available from your own computer, you receive 1GB of extra storage for your account on the Symform network.
There is also the web-browser based Mega cloud service from Kim Dotcom. Mega provides 50 GB of cloud storage space free of charge. Your data is encrypted on your computer before being uploaded to Mega.
Although Mega is a great service in theory, in practice Kim Dotcom’s services have been subject to interference by the authorities and legal action in the past. I prefer to use Mega only as secondary cloud backup. Mega are at mega.co.nz
Use Open Office and OwnCloud
I used to use Google Enterprise for this, but that’s now a thing of the past for me.
I now work on my data on my own computer using open source office software such as Open Office Unlike Microsoft Office, Open Office is free and open source.
OpenOffice is available free for both Windows and Linux and it’s also compatible with Microsoft format documents.
For web-based cloud access to my data from other computers not on my own lan network, I’m trialling a free open source cloud system called OwnCloud
Use KeePass for Passwords
What really happens to your passwords when you save them in these online vaults? Are they safe from criminal hackers? Safe from the NSA? Who knows?
I used to use a couple of online password services, in particular LastPass. I’ve now closed my account and switched to the open source KeePass.
Encrypt Your Data
I use Truecrypt on my computers to encrypt my business and private data partitions.
Truecrypt will prevent your data being accessed by unauthorized persons if your computer or hard drive gets stolen. I’d strongly recommend you encrypt your computer data with Truecrypt as a matter of course, NSA or no NSA. It makes good sense.
Secure Your Internet Connection with Tor
This one involves rather more effort and commitment than the average user would probably want to expend.
But if you want to make your Internet connection and data stream pretty well fully secure – or as near as, then you can implement a system called Tor.
Tor is another free open source project. The name stands for “The Onion Router”.
Tor is a communications system consisting of software and participating computers which tunnel your encrypted data between trusted member computers, before then exiting to the outside Internet.
The idea is basically to hide the Internet IP addresses of participating computers and users.
Tor is extremely secure. Which means it’s also a favoured system for criminals, porn merchants and terrorists.
This also means any computer acting as a Tor participant acts a red rag to the security authorities. Particularly if it operates as what is known as an “exit router”.
If there’s one response of the hacker and libertarian communities to increasing online government surveillance that concerns the authorities, it’s Tor.
Bear in mind that if you join the Tor network, then your computer will be helping to relay data from all other users in the Tor system. This will put increased traffic overhead on your Internet connection – and processing and traffic overhead on your computer.
It will also mean your computer and Internet connection will be assisting in relaying the data of porn merchants, criminals and terrorists.
I don’t fancy the idea of my computer being utilized for such purposes and that reason I don’t use Tor.
If however you want to use Tor for your Internet connection – for legitimate purposes that is, then I strongly advise at the very least you DON’T set up your computer to operate as a Tor exit router. The Tor Project themselves also advise against this for average users.
If you do then you will attract the attention of the security services and possibly also the law enforcement agencies to your Internet connection.
Your computer and yourself could also become liable for any misdoings relating to the data passing through your connection – unless you can prove otherwise. Which is probably a whole load of hassle you could do without.
If you want to check out Tor, it’s at www.torproject.org
Don’t Forget Your Firewall and Virus Protection
If you use Windows, make sure you have virus protection software installed and that the virus database is always up to date and active – and is running at all times.
Also make sure the built in firewall is active and configured correctly.
Don’t automatically click on mail attachments. And don’t let applications automatically start programs to open files sent to you in emails. This is especially important if you use Windows.
Even better, as I said at the beginning, consider switching to Linux. That way you will make a big reduction in your exposure to risk in one step.
There’s No 100% Privacy On The Web
Finally, it’s a fact that there’s no true anonymity or privacy on the Web. We can never be sure who is mining our data and for what purpose. Commercial, criminal, hacker, terrorist, government surveillance – or political enemies.
From the commercial sector alone there is now so much data-mining going on 24×7 across the Web that it’s almost impossible for anyone connected to the Internet and using Web services to avoid it.
The only sure way to be completely secure is to go offline. That’s probably too drastic a step for most people.
But we can at least become more aware of the issue of online privacy and the importance of retaining control over our own data in the face of data-mining big corporates and snooping governments. We can take some small steps of our own which don’t involve too much overhead or inconvenience.
We don’t have to automatically hand over ownership or copyright of our data to third party services. And we don’t have to accept automatic snooping of governments into our data or being treated as potential criminals.
For practical ways of securing your computer – see my post How To Secure Your Laptop
Image: Stop Spying – courtesy of creative heroesDisclosure: The above article may include affiliate links for products and services for which this site may receive remuneration.