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How to bypass electronic mass surveillance? (2nd part)

Photo of Adrien Olichon from Pexels

In the first part, I mentioned the impact that electronic mass surveillance could have on individuals. Even if little is known about it, solutions exist to reduce personal exposure to services that profile our uses. The first two pillars on which I have based my data anonymization are the following:

  • Avoiding the use of platforms whose purpose is to resell my personal data.
  • Protect my communications through services using cryptography

However, these solutions are only part of the answer. The most significant step that allowed me to bypass mass Internet surveillance was to leave Google.

Before going any further, I need to put it in context. Few companies in the world have revolutionized my way of life as Google. And this even though I am not American. The quality of its search engine, the democratization of its webmail, the storage and edition of documents in Google Drive or the Google Maps geolocation service are some exemples of services that revolutionized my uses. I could write a whole article about Android, the operating system installed in more than 85% of the world’s smartphones, that it wouldn’t be enough to do justice to the progress that Google has breathed into our lives. For a long time, profiling my uses to avoid paying for these services seemed legitimate to me.

Why did I change my mind?

As my standard of living increased, I understood the importance of the information quality that surrounded me and that I was consuming.

Constantly being fed with the same themes prevents new perspectives and standardizes points of view.

Google’s recommendation algorithm is based on user’s preferences to recommend the topics that he or she is most likely to enjoy. That’s why video recommendations on Youtube end up looking the same. This reduces the diversity of viewpoints and the plurality of opinions.

But the real pivotal point was my understanding that Google’s mission had changed. From the innovative and plural company of its beginnings, it has gradually transformed itself into a multinational company at the service of its shareholders. The famous “Don’t be evil” of its beginnings was gradually replaced by a vision centered on economic profit. The services provided to users are now traced back to their uses, either to resell the data or to share it directly with governments that do not care about individual freedoms (for instance Chinese).

As a Frenchman, knowing that my data (emails, drive documents, contacts, movements on Google Maps, etc.) can be freely consulted by the American administrations offends my convictions.

Having the chance to be protected by GDPR regulating the use of my data in Europe, it is finally illogical to use an American service, which renders this protection null and void.

Finally, choosing an alternative to Google’s monopoly means affirming the benefits of diversity and promoting competition.

How degooglize its uses ?

This process consisted in repatriating my personal data (emails, contacts, documents) from Google (Gmail, Google Drive) to a self-administered solution.

Wishing to regain control of my data, I did not want to reuse a free solution from another service provider (Microsoft Outlook, Yandex etc.). So I opted for the purchase of a domain name allowing me to host my emails as well as the hosting of an open source document management solution – Nextcloud – to replace Google Drive. The solution at Infomaniak (a small free ad) costs me 100€ including tax / year. Without being excessive, this is the price of my freedom. If you think about this 100 € spent, it is probably an equivalent amount that you bring back to Google each year by making your data available to them.

Once I found the hosting, I had to download all my emails from Gmail (via Thunderbird the email client) and then reimport them to my Infomaniak email account. Same for my Google contacts. It took me about half a day of work to find my folder tree perfectly. Finally I permanently redirected my emails received on Gmail to my new email address.

The most technically complex was the switch from Google Drive to the Nextcloud instance. By downloading all my documents via the Google Drive client, I then had to re-upload them with the Nextcloud client on my personal instance. Nothing technically infeasible but not really within the reach of the first person either.

My de-googlization didn’t stop at these preliminary solutions.

  • I replaced the Google Chrome web browser with Mozilla Firefox, a more privacy-friendly browser.
  • I replaced Google’s search engine with a more virtuous (but not perfect) alternative: DuckduckGo.
  • Finally I use OpenStreetMap instead of Google Maps.

What do I get out of it?

The technical migration allowed me to start a dynamic, which took time.

  • My interlocutors registered my new email address thanks to the automatic redirection.
  • My use of NextCloud is more or less the same as Google Drive, with the notable exception that editing my documents online with the GSuite is no longer possible. From now on, it is my local copies that are edited and synchronized online. In other words, I can no longer work collaboratively on the same document.
  • On the other hand, the integration between the different solutions – Gmail & Google Drive – versus Mail Infomaniak & Nextcloud is less fluid, it requires more actions to communicate but also to technically administer the solutions.
  • To be comprehensive, it is important to mention that I continue to use Android for my smartphone. No alternative convinced me in terms of quality level and associated services.

In the end, was my degooglization beneficial?

I sincerely think so. It allowed me to better understand the value of my data and to re-appropriate its content (by sorting during data migration).

The alternative solutions I found satisfy my uses. There are a few compromises to make when you are like me an early adopter of Google but in the end nothing insurmountable.

Advertisements and recommendations on the Internet now seem less targeted and more varied.

Perhaps the hardest part was the technical migration and the responsibility of being able to lose your data by hosting it somewhere else. A person who is not in the business can quickly get lost and discouraged. So the barrier is not so much financial as technical.

Here lies a major pitfall. Migrating from the simplicity of an integrated solution like Google to the multiplicity of technical solutions can make you lose sight of the objective: data only has value in the way you use it, not in the solutions that house it.

To conclude, I will quote the words of Pericles:

“There is no happiness without freedom, nor freedom without courage.”

Pericles

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