Posts tagged ‘privacy’

My Android phone no longer has a Google account

This week, I was finally able to fulfil a longstanding goal: to delete my Google account from my Android phone. This is a step in a series of progressions towards “completely” disappearing from Google’s radar. I have been comfortable with the state of my laptop, which avoids all Google spyware using ghostery to block Google analytics, disabling cookies on all Google domains, and using for search. I’ve dropped Google Talk in favour of a jabber server hosted by a friend. While I still actively monitor my Gmail account via IMAP, it is not my primary address and is largely only used for correspondence that is already public, such as mailing lists and Google Groups.

The three things that I have still been using Google for were:

  • Maps
  • Paid Apps From Google Play
  • Contact Backup

I still use Google maps on occasion, though my main navigation equipment is an offline Garmin GPS device that — to the best of my knowledge — is not notifying anyone of my location at any time. I largely addressed the other two issues this past week.

I recently received my Cubieboard in the mail. It’s basically a specced up Raspberry PI. I installed Arch Linux by following the instructions at this thread.

I then set up Own Cloud by following the instructions at the Arch wiki. Once it was set up, I realized that I personally don’t have much use for calendar sync or file sharing, but that the contact backup was crucial. I didn’t want a full LAMP stack running on my little ARM processor, so I uninstalled Own Cloud and set up Radicale instead. Now my phone’s contacts are backed up and I no longer need my Google account to support that feature.

Then I was notified that AOKP, my current Android ROM of choice, had released an update. I thought “Hm, I wonder if I can get away with not installing the Google Apps package at all.”

I couldn’t. But I tried. The main issue is that there are two paid apps in my Google Play account (SwiftKey and SwipePad MoreSpace) that I do not want to live without, and do not want to purchase again from another vendor. In the case of SwipePad, I couldn’t even find another vendor. I toyed with backing up and restoring the .apk’s, but I got certificate and signing errors. I’ve read that these can be circumnavigated with Titanium Backup, but I haven’t gotten around to trying it yet.

So I installed Google apps and reluctantly activated my Google Account to install these two paid apps. Then I disabled my Google Account.

I then installed Aptoide to replace Google Play. It had recent versions of all the free apps I use on a regular basis. It looks like it will be able to supply my app needs into the future.

I have logged into my Gmail account and deleted my pre-existing contact list. This means that even if I do have to enable Google Play in the future, I will no longer be spammed with “Your friends like this app” messages. It also means Google will not be able to track my future relationships unless they are with people who use Google services.

Now if only Ghostery and Firefox would get Ghostery working on Android, I’d actually feel safe using my device!

Internet Privacy for Dummies

I know my recent blog entries have tended towards rants on Internet privacy. It blows my mind that more people aren’t worried about it.

I’m not one to repost links on my blog, my readers know I prefer to have new content as much as possible. But this link is a wonderful summary of why normal people should be worried about privacy, and it’s outlined in a way that your mother can understand:

It doesn’t go as far as I would like (Facebook tracking is an even more serious offence), but it’s a good start for people who need to understand why privacy should be taken seriously.

This link is an advertisement for the duckduckgo search engine. I personally have switched from Scroogle to Starting Page. It is billed as the worlds most private search engine and has apparently been independently verified by a third party. However, Duck Duck Go may be a viable alternative as well.

My friend Matthew did not like the RequestPolicy plugin that I recommended because it required too much interaction to make sites work. He found the Ghostery plugin which works for most web browsers and does an exceptional job of removing most data trackers without any user interaction. I love this plugin! I’ve been using it for a month or so now and have experienced no broken websites. I trust it enough to put it on my family’s web browsers without them experiencing any breakage. Protecting their privacy will indirectly protect mine.

I am still being tracked on my mobile phone browser. If anyone can recommend a similar plugin for Blackberry or Android browsers, I would appreciate it.

I’ve started using bookmarks and search bookmarks a lot more often again. I had gotten in the habit of using the omni-bar for everything. Now instead of Googling the weather in some city, I search Weather Underground directly. Instead of searching google for a word definition, I search directly (the mobile site has a cleaner interface than their main one). Instead of searching for a site I had stumbled across in the past, I bookmark the site the first time I see it so I can request it without letting any search engines know I was looking for it.

“You should be on Facebook”

As I’m preparing to leave Switzerland, a lot of my friends have tried to pressure me to join Facebook so they can keep in touch. This isn’t going to happen due to privacy concerns I’ve mentioned many times before. I’d additionally like to counter a couple arguments people keep making in Facebook’s favour.

The most commonly voiced conviction is that “Facebook is so convenient,” or in the case of certain overly excitable individuals, “Facebook is soooooooooo convenient.”

I really shouldn’t have to point this out, but if Facebook were truly convenient, they would provide tools to send me a message or invite me to your events even though I don’t have an account with them. One obvious way to do this would be to integrate the Facebook messaging system with e-mail. Then you’d be able to communicate with me and anybody in the world who has an e-mail address. Facebook may connect over 800 million users (depending how many of those accounts are actually bots trying to harvest your data), but e-mail is able to connect around 2 billion people, and I am one of the 1.2 billion that are not on Facebook.

Of course, Facebook could be even more convenient if they allowed you to keep in touch with your Grandma who doesn’t know how to use a computer. Perhaps they should also support an option for mailing a letter via conventional post.

There is also no reason Facebook shouldn’t allow you to invite me to events by sending e-mails to people who do not use their service. It’s not hard to implement a non-member RSVP service; I’ve done so myself for two different client projects. The fact is, Facebook is deliberately restricting these conveniences for their own benefit.

The second argument I often here is that if I join Facebook I’ll “get to” keep up with all my friend’s lives. It is always worded as though I am missing out on some sort of privilege or basic right.

This is a bit more personal than the convenience argument. The truth is, since the adoption of the Internet, it has become trivial for absolutely anybody to author absolutely anything. Written information is a basic commodity. This puts the power in the reader’s hands, instead of the author’s.

In short, the reader has the privilege of choosing what they will read, and whose written information they will consume. The author is not granting privileges to the reader (despite the “all rights reserved” designation we still see on formally published articles).

Most people are not very good authors, and I’m sorry to say, most of the information disseminated via Facebook (that is not also available elsewhere) is simply not of interest to me.

I’m not saying my friends aren’t interesting, nothing could be further from the truth! But I prefer personalized messages in which we discuss things that are of mutual interest. I acknowledge that most of the stuff in my life is not of interest to any one of my friends. However, for those topics, facts, or events that I know you are interested in, I am happy to spend the time crafting a message meant for your eyes only in which I discuss those things I know you will care about. I won’t discuss Canadian politics if you live in Europe. I won’t discuss complex technical topics unless you’re as fascinated by them as I am. I won’t send you links to my sketches unless you’re interested in art. I would appreciate the same care from you; please don’t send me stupid cat photos, I’m not interested. I don’t care about celebrity or even local gossip. I’m not interested in the latest viral Internet meme.

Google has made an effort to address both these concerns with Google Plus. They have integrated Plus with Gmail, Google Talk, and SMS services so you can still keep in touch with me even though I have deleted my Google Plus profile. The whole Circles architecture is designed to address the second issue, although in my opinion it has failed to do so.

In summary, as I covered in my last post, Facebook does not provide such “convenient” services that they are worth the extremely high value of the data they wish to take from me in payment. If you choose to restrict your personal interactions only to the portion of the population who is active on Facebook, that is your prerogative. In turn, I will choose to keep in touch with those people who are willing to use services that I find more convenient.

Killing the Google habit

We live in an age where information is power. It is so valuable that companies like Google and Facebook are willing to give us amazing services for free in exchange for the information we give them, both about ourselves and others.

The cost of these “free” services is the information we choose to provide. Most of us are so eager to not spend money that we happily give away a wealth of personal details, including:

  1. every e-mail we send or receive
  2. every chat message.
  3. every location we want to find
  4. contact details for everyone we know
  5. our general relationship to every person we know (using services like Google Plus circles or Facebook groups)
  6. every photo we take
  7. every news article we read
  8. most of the websites we visit (if Google analytics, “like this on Facebook”, “share this on Twitter”, or other trackers are enabled on the site
  9. every term we search for
  10. our appointments, tasks and meetings
  11. our documents
  12. our purchases and shopping habits

In short, we now share a huge percentage of the collective information about our entire lives with various online services, and in exchange for what? Convenience, of course. Safe backup and storage. Free access from any computer with an internet connection.

I think we’re getting shortchanged. I don’t think most services are worth the information we sacrifice to use them. This information is extremely valuable, yet we give it away for easy methods of keeping in touch. This article is a summary of the things I am doing to keep my personal information personal. It’s not strictly a question of privacy, although that is also important. It’s more about protecting information that has value from theft by these giant corporations.

Facebook is the company that makes me the most nervous. I don’t trust their shady, ever changing privacy policy. Therefore, I closed my Facebook account well over a year ago, and I use the excellent Firefox plugin RequestPolicy to prevent them from knowing which web pages i visit. As a backup, I have also customized my hosts file to prevent any requests to the Facebook domain and other trackers.

I feel the cost of the Facebook service is too high. I am not willing to “pay” for this service with information about the sites I visit, the people I communicate, and the things I say to those people. Of course, they still have a certain amount of information about me that I cannot protect alone. People probably still tag my name in photos, link to my websites, or try to invite my e-mail address to join the service. These people are giving away the knowledge of our relationship. I can’t help that, as it takes two to keep a secret. Overall, however, I am comfortable with the relative unknown that I am to the company.

Amazon is another company that causes apprehension. They know my reading habits and shopping habits. Even if I don’t buy through them, I research many products on their site. Worse, Amazon provides a large chunk of computing power to numerous other websites that I use. In most cases, I likely don’t even know which sites are using AWS services. In theory, Amazon has access to data stored on those systems. In practice, I suspect the cost of mining that data is prohibitive at this time. Nevertheless, the data exists and Amazon algorithms may one day desire access to it.

Google is the third and largest major data collector. I trust them with a lot more of my personal data than anyone else. In some cases, their services are so useful that I am willing to pay for it with this information. In other cases, I have been unaware of just how much information I am giving them. I’ve been considering each of Google’s services in light of what I am paying for it and have come to the following conclusions:

Google Analytics provides me absolutely zero service in exchange for telling Google almost every site I visit. I have solved this in the same way I solved the Facebook issue: The Request Policy plugin and a modded hosts file for backup.

Google News is a nice service, but it’s not worth the cost of allowing Google to know every article that is of interest to me. Further, I have been allowing Google to decide which articles I should seen. Ostensibly this is in the name of convenience; I don’t have to sift through articles I am not interested in. This convenience has an added cost. I have given Google the opportunity to “warp” my view of the world by picking what windows i see into it. I don’t believe Google would maliciously hide articles from me to prevent me from knowing about that information (even though they do this in China on behalf of the government, but they have the opportunity to do so. Worse, they can easily accidentally hide articles from me that prevent my getting the whole story. Their algorithms are certainly not infallible. If I want news on a controversial subject, they may only show me the side of the story I “probably” agree with. This doesn’t allow me to make an unbiased judgment of my own.

Google Reader is a related tool that is not worth the cost of allowing Google to know what feeds or articles I find interesting or amusing. I have quit using Google News already and will be dropping Google Reader requests this week.

Gmail is an interesting question. I gave up Gmail last summer because I wasn’t comfortable with Google having access to every email I write. However, some e-mail server somewhere must necessarily have access to that information. E-mail has to be stored somewhere. I currently use Zoho mail, but intend eventually to migrate to a personally maintained e-mail server. One interesting thing about Gmail is that even though I do not use the service, Google still has access to every message I send to someone who has a Gmail address. I am willing to pay this cost for two reasons. First, it is not feasible to find other forms of communication for each of my contacts that uses Gmail. Second, the message has to be stored somewhere, and if the user receiving it trusts Gmail over some other service, that is their prerogative.

Google Chat has the same problem. I am in the process of moving my Google Talk contacts to a Jabber account. For the select few people I communicate with who use Jabber, Google does not have a record of our chat. However, most of my contacts are Google Chat users. I have to decide if the convenience of talking to these people through an instant message is worth the cost of allowing Google to see all those messages. For the time being, I don’t expect to change my habits.

I don’t think I understand the purpose of Google Plus. I’m still playing with it, but the service it offers doesn’t seem to justify letting Google see my semi-private communications. I expect to phase it out of my daily routine in a month or two. I don’t mind Google indexing my intentionally public posts, but I can just as easily make public posts on my blog. The information they obtain in the form of circles (i.e: whether I consider them a friend or coworker or acquaintance) is too valuable to give away freely.

Google maps is the most difficult service to walk away from. If I want the convenience of a mapping application without the cost of telling Google or some other online service my exact location, I guess I’d have to buy paper maps or a GPS that is not web enabled. My current favourite Google maps feature is the way it automatically remembers searches I made on the web when I look them up again on my Android phone. For the time being, I am willing to provide sensitive information about my location in exchange for the service Google supplies. However, I suspect I am overpaying.

Google search, of course, is the great big question mark. It is impossible to search the web without giving some system information about what you want to search for. Services like Scroogle can prevent Google from knowing who made the search, but that doesn’t stop Scroogle from having it.

I have noticed that about 40% of my searches return a Wikipedia page as the first result and that I usually click that link when it comes up. There is no need for Google to know that I searched for something on Wikipedia. I have therefore set up Wikipedia as my default search engine and created a shortcut bookmark named “g” to search Scroogle.

In addition to knowing which terms I search for, Google also knows which links I click in the search results. There is a Javascript click handle on each link reporting to Google that I have clicked it. The service Google provides me in exchange for this information is custom search results based on what they think I will click. Aside from suffering from the same problems I described with Google News, this service is simply not worth the value of the information they are collecting from me. From its inception, Google was able to provide uncannily accurate search results without this extra knowledge about me. My solution? All Google searches are now routed through Scroogle.

Google Translate is a service that I am willing to supply with information about my inane translation requests in order to see the translations. I will continue to use this service. My French is so basic, that I don’t think Google can get much of a profile of me from it.

At this point, Google map’s sync with my phone, and my continued evaluation of Google Plus are the only Google services that I need to be logged into my Google account to use. I therefore expect to be staying logged out of my Google account by default by early next year. I also hope to disable my account altogether by the end of 2012.

One non-google service that also has a great deal of information about me is Remember The Milk. They know every task I complete. Worse, I pay them for the privilege of having this information (I have the RTM pro account in order to sync with my phone)! I intend to spend a weekend writing my own self-hosted web-based task management app that will be accessible from both phone and laptop someday soon.

Do you think I’m too paranoid about what Google knows about me? Consider Cory Doctorow’s short story, Scroogled, which was written in 2007. We are a lot closer to the eventuality he describes than we were five years ago. Seems somewhat prophetic, doesn’t it?

A week without Google cookies

After my last post I decided to do a little experiment to determine how dependent I am on Google’s services and their knowledge of me. Rather than cut Google out altogether, I decided to disable all cookies and scripts from the Google domains and see what happened.

The most immediate effect was that I couldn’t log into Google services. This only really affected me at the news and reader sites. When I visit the news page, I get Swiss German (this is a mistake on Google’s part as I live in the French speaking part of Switzerland), and have to click through the dropdown to get Canadian English. Creating a bookmark to go directly to the Canadian News site fixed this.

I only have a few feeds, mostly webcomics in my Reader feed, so I didn’t miss it much, I just accessed those sites directly. If it was important, I could use Thunderbird for syndication instead.

I was also unable to turn off the extremely irritating ‘google instant’ behaviour. I hate having search results appear as I start typing and then disappear or move after I’ve realized I’ve seen what I want, but haven’t had time to tell my fingers to stop.

The biggest deficit was that Google maps no longer has any memory. I was surprised to discover that Google maps was my most personalized google product. I really appreciated maps predicting my home location, knowing that my search results should probably be close to Geneva rather than the US, and syncing up my location searches with my phone so my GPS had access to the locations I had just searched as I walked out the door.

I access my GMail account via IMAP (the web interface is too slow compared to local caching), so not having cookies didn’t impede that. I don’t use Gmail as my primary address anyway.

I also kept my Google Talk (accessed via pidgin) account enabled. I could ask my friends to use my Jabber address instead, but I figure Google would still be logging the chats at their end.

I’ve had Google Analytics disabled via noscript for quite a while already.

Overall, I’m quite confident that I could disable my Google account altogether and not feel I was missing out on anything (just as I’m not missing anything by not having a Facebook account). However, I don’t really have a reason to do so. I don’t consider Google to be evil in practice. In theory, however, they simply may not be evil yet.

Because Google services are “free” I am expected to give them access to my data trail as “payment” for those services, as with all free web services. Whether the product is worth this fee is a separate question. I could pay for competing services, but I have no reason to trust the competition more or less than Google. Zoho currently hosts my e-mail; the only reason I feel any safer with them than Google is that they aren’t big enough to have the intelligence gathering that Google has in place. Dave Crouse hosts this blog on, I trust him a lot more than any big corporation or other nonhuman entity.

I don’t agree with the “If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t worry” sentiment, simply because the definition of “nothing to hide” can change over time. Things that seem innocent in Google’s hands right now may take a more sinister meaning if their network ever becomes sentient!

I also realized that Google has access to all my public content (as does every service). This suggests that it would be sensible to migrate from Twitter to Google Plus, as I can still use the public stream the same way I currently use Twitter, but if I want to restrict publication of certain content to a specific circle, I have that option.

The only way it would be possible to hide completely would be to disable my Internet connection altogether. Even then, anyone can take my picture walking down the street, and every time I show my passport at an airport or hotel, someone, somewhere, knows I’ve been there. Since I can’t hide completely, and I don’t see that there’s any benefit to partial hiding (much like Dan McGee’s arguments against partial package signing), I think all I can do is accept that privacy is an old-fashioned concept in the emerging world, much like copyright.

Privacy vs Freedom of Speech: Wikileaks

The Pirate Party of Canada has asked it’s members to vote on its stance towards the Wikileaks discussion. In most cases, the PPoC requests its members to have their own opinion, and, if ever elected, to represent their constituents before representing the party. The PPoC only has a unified stance on matters of copyright law, privacy, and free speech. The Wikileaks issue definitely falls under this category, and the party therefore needs to make a collective decision. Here, I am publishing my personal stance on the issue, regardless of the decision they make.

Every human being should have a right to privacy. If we wish to keep any detail about ourselves secret, we should have the right to do so. Legal or illegal, moral or immoral, if we don’t want some piece of data to be public knowledge, the right to privacy is paramount.

We wave this right as soon as we tell anyone our secret. Whether it is a family member, a close friend, a stranger, or everyone on Facebook, the secret is no longer ours to keep. By telling the person that secret, we have given them the right to maintain the secret, or to pass it on or publish it however they deem fit. We can request that they keep the secret, but we cannot demand it. However, that person still has the same right to privacy that we originally had. If only two of us know the secret, we both have the right to protect that secret. No-one should be able to forcibly take that secret from us without our consent.

Once a sufficient number of people knows the secret, the probability that their collective privacy will be greater than the right to gossip approaches zero. “Private knowledge” vs “public knowledge” is not a binary distinction. One person knowing our secret does not make the secret “public.” However, it means that we no longer have the soul ability to keep it private.

The other side of the coin is the responsibility to protect individual privacy. Many professional and government organizations have access to individual data about us that we may want to keep secret. Our doctors, nurses, and medical staff, our accountants and lawyers, our banks, tax agencies, and passport authorities, our driver’s license, health care, and motor vehicle registries all have access to data that they require, but we have the right to protect. They are responsible for protecting that individual data on our behalf. If they fail, data becomes public that should not be public.

So far, I’ve been talking about individual privacy. Privacy does not apply to corporations or governments. They should be held accountable to the individuals in the world, they should be required to operate transparently and openly. They are responsible to maintain the privacy of their employees, members, clients, and customers, but have no right to privacy as a single corporate entity.

Once data is made public, the right to publish that data trumps the right to privacy. This is freedom of speech. Any individual or organization who has access to data has the right to publish the data. The right to free speech does not trump the right to privacy, however, once privacy has been given up, the right to free speech is stronger.

The Wikileaks fiasco violates all of these principles. The private data of individuals was compromised. Government organizations were not operating transparently. Government organizations failed in their responsibility to protect the private data of individuals in their care. Freedom of speech was violated when both governments and corporate entities that should have been completely disinterested oppressed the publisher of the data.

I’d like to emphasize this point: Government organizations failed in their responsibility to protect the private data of individuals in their care. The failure rests squarely on the shoulders of the governments in question. Rather than attacking one (of many) publisher of the information, the governing body is obligated to fix their internal processes. Further, the corporate entities that are attacking Wikileaks should be focusing on this real culprit, not the publisher.

One less relevant note: it is true that the right to freedom of speech can be applied immorally. Consider the celebrity publications of today: the paparazzi are, by most accounts, disgustingly immoral. They violate the right to individual privacy (such violation should be illegal), but have the right to publish information once obtained. Wikileaks may (arguably) be immoral, but they are not so immoral as the paparrazzi that killed and photographed Princess Diana. Why is Wikileaks being persecuted while celebrity gossip rags are running free?