Going Analog Sidequest: Quitting Google

Email isn’t analog by any stretch of the imagination, no. But I consider more hands-on approaches to technologies, where we have to use them, as part of the same ethos. The whole Going Analog project is, at is heart, about regaining control. It’s about transparency. And it’s about removing corporate middlemen that stand between me and what I’m trying to accomplish. So I consider opting-out of one more ad-driven platform a perfectly valid thing to write about under the analog banner.

Three years ago, I was using a lot of Google products. Gmail, Office, Drive, Maps, search – even their flagship line of smartphones, which I chose for having the least amount of bloatware for a shipped Android device, and even an early Chromebook model. And then I started reading about the ethics, and subsequent gross breaches by every for-profit tech giant, of user privacy. Boy did I change my tune after that.

Search

The first thing to go was Google’s search engine, the product that made the company its first millions so many years ago. This was the easiest thing to do, obviously. I installed Chromium (the surveillance-free*, open-source version of Chrome) and set my default search to DuckDuckGo and have been perfectly happy ever since. Its algorithms are different, but the results it gives me are just as good. There are other options out there if DDG isn’t to your liking: SearX, Qwant, Ixquick, and for the truly paranoid, many of these options are usable with the Tor browser. Odds are, though, if you’re reading this blog you probably don’t know what the Tor browser is. (But you probably should.)

Nexus and Chromebook

The next thing I gave up was my Nexus smartphones. I tried rooting them, but found the process a little too esoteric (and potentially risky if you don’t know what you’re doing) for it to be worth it. It was around that same time when the batteries stopped holding good charges, the screen on my primary phone cracked into a million spiderwebs, and I was looking to get away from having a screen in my pocket 24/7 anyways, so I chucked them into the recycling bin and didn’t look back. And just like that, it was impossible for Google to track where I was and what I was doing thanks to my use of Maps, device location, and other features that most smartphone users never bother to disable. I bought an LG Xpression 2 from eBay for $40, including shipping and 2 years of insurance, and I’ve never been happier.

The Chromebook was its own set of headaches, but I liked the form factor and that the level of hardware maintenance pretty much amounted to zero. I knew I didn’t want to run such a lumbering, bloated OS like Windows on such a lightweight machine, so I started looking into and test-driving different Linux distributions. Eventually I came across Elementary OS, the smallest operating system I’ve ever used, and quickly discovered that it would deliver on everything I needed – and nothing I didn’t – and do it with a clean, stylish interface. A few more weeks of research sold me on the HP Stream 11, which I again used eBay to procure for $100. A refurbished model, of course. I then proceeded to wipe the drive and install eOS.

But what about the other big feature of the Chromebook: syncing of files to Docs and Drive (by way of your forced use of the G suite)? My workaround is below.

Office and Drive

I was never a big office suite power user, so my use of Google Docs etc. never amounted to anywhere near what other users rack up in terms of files stored on Google’s cloud servers. Most of them were simple word documents of prose fiction, job resumes, and the occasional miscellany; rarely anything important. I barely even used the calendar app. But what was important was that I be able to access these files from any of my devices quickly and easily – something that was handy when I wanted to go out on the town and settle down to lunch somewhere and chip away at a chapter or a blog post.

There weren’t many Linux-friendly options for cloud backup and file syncing. At least, not many that were multi-platform compatible. I still had a primary working machine at home that I needed to sync files to, which has to run Windows thanks to my current dependency on Adobe products. (And my refusal to get a Mac.) More research introduced me to SpiderOak’s One product, which is part backup service and part sync: it’s compatible with Win, Mac, and Ubuntu-derived Linux distros, which is exactly what I needed. (And in the end, it was better than my old Carbonite subscription anyways – SpiderOak charges not per device, but by the amount of storage needed across as many devices as you need to use. Score.)

The key part of the One service is what’s called the Hive folder: a folder that sits on your computers and functions like any other folder, but where the contents of which are instantly synced across all other copies of your Hive. It’s basically like a little Dropbox.

Honestly, the need to sync files across devices was the biggest reason I’d mostly stopped using on-board document editing software in the first place, even though I’ve been installing Open Office and Libre Office on my computers for the better part of a decade. Gone are the days of hauling flash drives with me everywhere (I had a number of them fail on me for no good reason over the years), or emailing things to myself all the time. With SpiderOak One and Hive, I could go back to doing that, and subsequently break away from my use of Google Docs, Sheets, and the rest of their badly-designed Suite.

(For distraction-free prose writing, I’ve also been using the hell out of Focus Writer. Highly recommended.)

In-Progress: Gmail

Quitting Gmail and opting for a quality, privacy-respecting alternative is easier than ever before. There are a small handful of free services like Protonmail or Lavabit, but most providers have to charge something in exchange for not bombarding you with ads or mining the contents of your emails to sell to somebody else.

Seeing that I have my own domain already, and my own email server, I figured the best thing to do would be to start using that more often. Currently, it’s bombarded with spam emails and the filter seems to have a will of its own in what it sends to the inbox and what it marks as junk, so that’s something I have to figure out how to fix. Thunderbird, my inbox software, helps a little, but the lion’s share of the issue lies with other parts of the infrastructure.

However, I plan to start using a service called StartMail, which has a business plan that will piggyback on your own domain. The company abides by Dutch privacy laws, the service has a lot of security features, it’s IMAP compatible, and I can create disposable dummy email addresses all I want… say, if I wanted to subscribe to a newsletter for a one-time contest entry or something. The service isn’t free, but you can take StartMail for a test drive for a week to see if you like it.

I’ll post more on this one as I work on it.

Maps

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a very good alternative to Google Maps yet. Maquest is clunky, and most other non-app services don’t have live traffic updates, which is something I rely on a lot to figure out whether I should leave 30 minutes before I gotta be at work… or 90 minutes.

As it is I don’t use it very often, and I’ve got my computer and privacy settings done such that it doesn’t seem to know where my computer is located, so at least there’s that. What I should probably do is get in the habit of using it only while Incognito or via some other similar tracking-lite browser space to keep Google from putting too many one and ones together.

For my 1000-mile roadtrip, though? I do plan on going to AAA to get some old school paper maps, using common sense, reading road signs, and only breaking out the smartphone (my husband’s) in the event of some kind of emergency.

So wait… this all isn’t free, is it?

No, no it’s not. But that’s the price we pay for not being spied on, emotionally manipulated by echo chamber search results, and attacked with ads everywhere we turn. But think of it this way: how much is Google making off of storing the contents of your life every year? Probably not nearly as much as I’ll be paying annually for these ad-free, privacy-respecting services, but still: what I’m paying for is peace of mind, and complete ownership of my data and content. I’m paying for transparency in a tech landscape where obfuscation is basically just legalized pick-pocketing.

So how much will my peace of mind cost me every year? Let’s break it down.

  • Google search to DuckDuckGo: free.
  • Google smartphone to LG dumbphone: +~$200/replacement cycle. Not including savings from lack of data plan.
  • Chromebook/Chrome OS to HP Stream/eOS: no difference.
  • Google Docs to Libre Office: no difference.
  • Google Drive to SpiderOak One: -$5/mo.
  • Gmail to personal domain/StartMail: -$75/yr.

All in all? It comes out to be about the same. If the cost of the dumbphone is 1/4th the cost of a used smartphone, AND the replacement cycle is, say, doubled in length, then that’s a significant savings just for the device by itself. It also more than makes up for the other $80/year I’m paying for quality email and domain services that are entirely, or almost entirely, without the corporate meddling, spying, and marketing efforts inherent to the so-called “free” services.

The end result? Google will have a damned hard time figuring out who I am and what I’m up to. And that’s what counts.

*Chromium isn’t surveillance-free, exactly: it still sends Google your IP address, which many privacy advocates still decry. But if you’ve ever used a Google product, the company already has a lot of information about you – and it would take a LOT of work to disappear from their sights entirely. So, I’ve struck a balance. And yes, I have reasons not to use FF.

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