Data has become the currency of the web. Full featured software and services such as Facebook and Google’s app (Gmail, search, maps, etc) can be used seemingly “free of change”, but comes with a personal data price which alot of users are starting to pay attention to. This article will provide you with some great alternatives if you too are suffering from data collection fatigue.
Search Engine: DuckDuckGo
Unlike Google’s search engine, DuckDuckGo does not track your web searches to personalize ad results, or for any other purpose. As a search engine company, it still makes money from ads. But it takes a much more general aproach. As their site states, “if you search for cars, we’ll show you ads about cars”. Sounds logical enough to me.
I started using DuckDuckGo about 3 years ago and I’ll be honest that the search results were not as accurate as Google. I’d often find myself switching back to Google to find relevant results.
However, since 2020 I have seen a truly significant improvement and have actually found that, at least in my case, DuckDuckGo shows more relevant results than Google nowadays.
DuckDuckGo is becoming quite popular, and can be set out-the-box as the default search engine in most popular browsers.
Messaging: Signal - Better than WhatsApp before Facebook
As soon as Whatsapp appeared it immediately caught the world’s attention as an awesome way to securely message your friends and family with its full end-to-end encryption plus free international text, voice, and video messaging.
But it wasn’t long until Facebook purchased the app, and with the recent end user agreement changes being applied early 2021, alot of people are concerned about the direction the app is taking. These concerns have caused alternative messaging apps like Signal to significantly rise in popularity recently. If you’ve been trying to make the switch, the 2021 Whatsapp exodus is the perfect opportunity to convince friends and family.
Some reasons Signal is awesome:
- Full end-to-end encryption
- Code is completely open source. This means the full code for its server software, its desktop app, its mobile apps, and any other team libraries are all posted on GitHub here.
- Non-profit organization funded by grants and donations, not by selling your data.
- No loss in features compared to Whatsapp; you still have your group video calls, group chats, send images, and most importantly: GIFs!
- Awesome disappearing message configuration. Optional message expiration can be set anywhere between 5 seconds to a week.
Email: ProtonMail - Encrypted email without the content scans
Have you ever booked a flight ticket, received a confirmation email and suddenly your flight time magically appears on your Google Calendar? In order to provide such “conveniences”, Gmail scans your email content for relevant information to apply to your other Google services. If this bothers you, I highly recommend you look at ProtonMail. ProtonMail not only won’t scan your emails, it actually couldn’t even if it wanted to. Its hosted in Switzerland, which is known for its strict user data laws, and provides full message encryption. This means that if both the sender and recipient have ProtonMail, only those two individuals would be able to see the message and even the email service provider would not. All emails in your own mailbox are visible only by you.
They also provide a nifty way to optionally send encrypted messages to the non-ProtonMail users in your life; details may be found here. To add icing to the cake, you can also add an expiration date to encrypted emails.
The minor downside is that the free account does have certain low limits compared to Gmail. But remember, Gmail is not really “free”; its simply subsidized by your data.
As of the time of writing, the free tier of ProtonEmail has the following limits:
- 500MB storage
- 150 messages per day
- Limited Support
If you require more, PhotonMail’s paid options are quite reasonable. Personally, I purge my emails at least once a year so this is way more than I actually need.
Operating System: TailsOS for full amnesia
TailsOS provides a truly secure and private way to use your computer. Used as a bootable OS, you do not actually install it on your computer’s hard drive. Instead you install it on a USB boot drive, which loads the entire OS to your RAM on startup.
This provides several security and privacy advantages:
- Browser history and passwords are completely purged on every reboot.
- Any malware encountered during usage is also wiped off on reboot. Since its based on Linux, your chances of encountering malware are also already significantly lower than they would be if using Windows.
- No data saved means no data to find if your PC is confiscated. This is especially useful for journalists reporting in oppressive countries.
- By default all network traffic is routed securely and privately through the Tor network.
If you are not familiar with the Tor network, imagine that you are back in middle school and want to pass a note to someone across the class, but do not want that person to know its from you.
To start off with, your message is encrypted and cannot be read by others on its way to the final person.
Then each student that receives the note to pass on only knows who they got the note from and the immediate person next to them to pass it on to. They have no idea who gave the previous person the note, or who the next person will pass the note to. Obviously the implementation is much more complex, but that’s the gist of it.
If persistent storage is a requirement, TailsOS does provide an optional way to save your files in an encrypted “vault” area on the same USB stick.
I hope you’ve found this article useful. As data collection increases in the web, its becoming more and more important to be at the very least aware of the “personal data price”. Although having a zero personal data presence is not practical or even possible nowdays, the apps mentioned here should hopefully help you at least lower your personal data footprint on the web.