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Breaking Up with the Tech Giants

Published by on under the Technology category.

I’ve never broken up with a girlfriend before. Unless watching movies where people have broken up qualifies me as an expert on break-ups, then I am in new waters right now. I’m not exactly sure what to say here. I’m sorry, technology giants. It’s you, not me.

I have never heard that way of breaking up being used in the movies before, but it’s the only way I can do it gracefully. I need to be honest and admit that the problem is you, technology giants. I haven’t done anything wrong, aside from perhaps allowing myself to be in your grasps for so long.

Loyal readers, you’ve probably noticed that I have been talking more about privacy than usual. I’ve even talked about how I was considering making a move over to ProtonMail from Gmail. To quickly update you, I have made that change. It was part of a broader movement to “degoogle” myself, which has now become more about removing the technology giants from my life.

Privacy has always fascinated me. I remember watching the television show Mr. Robot a year or two ago (I haven’t seen the latest season, so no spoilers in the Webmentions!) and the show made it clear to me how clever hackers can be. It’s not exactly realistic, and as far as I know there is not a modern equivalent to “Evil Corp” (who I am still not sure is called E-Corp or Evil Corp). I do know that the show hired hackers to help advise them on production, and so I expect that much of what I saw was at least somewhat based on real life. I don’t even need a television show to tell me about hacking. I know how powerful some of the tools out there are.

This isn’t what scares me about sending data across the internet. I didn’t go into full lockdown mode after watching Mr. Robot. The likelihood of being subject to the type of attacks seen in that show is minimal. What scares me more are the technology giants, who have been able to sneak their way into our lives in myriad ways. Amazon, until this morning, had a device on my desk. It sat and listened to me every day.

What inspired me to write this blog post, was an experience I had earlier today. I woke up and looked at my Amazon Echo Show and said to myself “you know, this device is always listening to you.” I do not have a stance on the debate over whether they always record you, but I do know that, from an engineering perspective, they have to be listening so that they know when the Alexa activation word is used. I decided to unplug the device and move it away from my desk. It will still have recordings of my voice, but at least it cannot make any more.

Understanding what privacy means

You’ll notice that the argument “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about” is commonly used when someone hears that you are concerned about privacy. This argument is fundamentally flawed in many ways that I’m not going to address at length in this post. What convinced me this argument is wrong was a TED Talk I heard a few years ago. I can’t remember who gave the talk, but they asked the audience a question like this: would you write out all your passwords and give them to a friend so they can read everything that you post online? They can’t change your data, but they can see everything that you do on your computers and on the internet. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with this. Would you?

Privacy matters to me because technology companies like Google and Facebook have been able to wriggle their way into our lives without us truly understanding what their presence means. The presence of Amazon in my room, to me, has always meant convenience. This morning it seemed like a switch was flipped in my mind. I realized that perhaps the convenience was not worth the trade-off. I only used my Echo to control my one smart light bulb and to set a second alarm. That was it. I didn’t really need an Echo in my room.

I’ve given a lot of data to companies in my life time. What troubles me is that I’m never going to know what they have done with it, or what they will do with it. Who is to say that Twitter doesn’t have a log of all of my Tweets. Could they run a machine-learning algorithm on that to somehow learn more about me. Isn’t that what they were already doing to an extent with my existing Tweets? It’s scary that once you give control over your data, that’s it. You no longer have any say in what happens to it.

I have checked many “terms of service” boxes in my life, so you could say this is my fault. But who reads those terms of service agreements anyway? I’ve always thought that you shouldn’t have to have a degree in law to understand when your privacy is being violated. The only reason I know that privacy should matter to me is because I understand the ways in which modern platforms are architected. I have spent years reading about business and so I know about profits and incentives. Many people don’t, which is why they don’t see privacy as such a big deal as I do now. I was guilty of this: for a long time, I was happy to cede my data so that I could get more and better things quicker.

The need for speed

Do I need more and better things quicker? I don’t think so. When I look around the internet today, I see that my definition of “better” is deviating from that of big technology companies. Before writing this article, I read a blog post on how software has fallen behind in recent years. I intend on writing about this separately at a later date, although I will reiterate one point from the article. The author pointed out the bloat in Adobe’s Creative Cloud product. Interestingly, it was that bloat that discouraged me from starting with graphic design (I probably wouldn’t have pursued it seriously, but I wasn’t able to explore it at the time because of how slow the software run). Sketch’s competitive advantage was that they were not Adobe. They were simpler.

I’ve come to expect that modern technologies are faster and better than their predecessors. As Jeff Bezos once said – and I apologize if I am woefully misremembering this – nobody was going to go into his office and ask for a product to be delivered slower or for more money. That’s what Amazon ultimately built their competitive advantage on: speed and convenience. The trouble is that many technology companies are not innovating to the extent that they could. They are adding new features, which is not a proxy for building better products.

Let me tell you a short story about Minecraft. When I played the game, I loved it. Every time a new update came out, I was excited. I haven’t played Minecraft in a few years, and when I stumbled upon the game a few months ago, I was shocked to hear how much had changed. Being out of the game for a few years made it very difficult for me to understand what was going on. It’s a real shame.

Modern technologies are like this. GMail may look more attractive than it did when it was in beta, but is it faster today? I didn’t use the GMail beta, but I can almost guarantee that it is not. The service pings so many services on load that it takes a few seconds to render. I do like the user interface of GMail, but when I see how fast my ProtonMail-hosted mail is accessible through the Apple Mail client (or through the ProtonMail website), I find myself wondering: was GMail depriving me of speed that I could have?

I don’t even need this speed. Modern technology companies talk about how bigger and more is better. More features is better for Minecraft just as it is better for email. Yet it seems that so many great companies are built because they are bringing things back to basics. Adobe had cornered the market on design, only for Sketch to come along and say “hey, this market isn’t just yours!” It’s Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation framework in action.

Moving away from the technology giants

Privacy doesn’t matter to me because I have something to hide. It matters to me because I should know how my data is being processed. Privacy is a concern for me because of the fact that the ways companies are processing our data is slowing down our applications. I demand better on the internet.

This has not been an easy transition, and it’s one that I am still making. The first step was for me to take back control of my browser. I moved away from Sidekick, which was powered on Google Chrome (I was using its beta for a few weeks), and to Mozilla Firefox. I heard that Firefox was a more privacy-respecting browser, and upon reading Mozilla’s website, I was convinced. The transition was a bit hectic. I must admit it took me quite a while to get all my bookmarks set up. Now I am firmly committed to Firefox, and I don’t think that I need to go back.

Firefox has been faster than Chrome (or Sidekick) ever was for me. I have noticed that there are fewer times when I need to close a tab and reopen it because the process has frozen. I used The Great Suspender to suspend tabs in the background on Chrome, and on Firefox I feel like I don’t need it. My quest for privacy helped me find a better solution to browsing the internet. What an interesting side-product of this experiment.

I also made a move away from GMail as I mentioned earlier. I am now a user of ProtonMail. To hold myself accountable, I purchased a one-year subscription, and knowing how frugal I am, I will make the most of that subscription. What have I noticed since then? Somehow, my ProtonMail bill is cheaper than that of my G Suite bill. Google betrayed my privacy and collected my data in needless ways. ProtonMail is privacy respecting and is both faster and easier to use. Again, what an interesting observation.

I’ve still got to use Google products at work, and so no doubt they will still be able to track my location or whatever for most of the day. It’s a shame but there just aren’t enough good enterprise replacements out there to Google products that I am aware of right now. Even if there were, convincing my boss to switch to an entire new platform would not be worth my time. We’ve already got good workflows in our existing tools, and it would be a pain for everyone – including me – to switch over to a new platform.

Google is the company who I am distancing myself from the most, and that’s because I used more of their products than any others. I am not a user of Facebook. I have a Twitter account, but I’ve stopped using it lately. Google was everywhere, and I didn’t even think about it. This is concerning because Google has collected my data in so many ways and I never even asked myself why they were collecting that data, or what they would do with it. Signing up to Google services was so simple that before I could even think about it I would have given my data away.

This is going to be a long journey and I expect to uncover many new methods companies are using to violate my privacy. I’ve installed a number of extensions like Privacy Badger to help me take control over the data my browser ingests, but there is no doubt that a few trackers and whatever else will slip through the cracks. This has, unfortunately, become the status quo on the modern web.

Say what you will about the design and security of the ’90s and early ’00s web, but there is one thing I know for certain: cookies were not used to the extent that they are today. Companies were not in a rat race to see who could develop the most sophisticated algorithms possible to analyze user data. The model of advertising on the internet was still being theorized; we were a long way from deep nets looking through user data for trends. This is one of the aspects of the old web that I miss the most. The people you had to be concerned about violating your privacy were not big companies, it was malicious actors. Those could be avoided – as we know today – with good digital hygiene and the right technological innovations like SSL.

Before I started writing this post, I came across a new word: degoogle. I don’t think it’s in any dictionary, but it is certainly a trend. There are communities of people who are doing what I am doing right now. They are switching from Google Search to DuckDuckGo. They are downloading new browser extensions to remove trackers. They are using Firefox instead of Chrome. The same goes for other tech giants. I don’t want to use Amazon’s services as much as I used to. I don’t want to be giving away my data to companies needlessly.

It turns out that what I want to do on the internet doesn’t need to involve tech giants, even if they made me think that way. I don’t even need to use an app as a to-do list. I just switched from Todoist Premium (for which I was paying to get access to features like comments), to a markdown document on my Desktop. The markdown document is simpler, free, and doesn’t require me to sign in with Google. I’m so happy that I have started to reevaluate these technologies in my life.

Google, I’ve had a good run with you. We have good memories. The same goes with you, Amazon. Do you remember that time you delivered a package to me within 24 hours of my placing an order? Twitter, do you remember how I used to check you a few times a day? Those days are now gone. I’m entering into a new phase in my life, and we are both just looking for different things. You are looking for data. I am looking for privacy. We’re just… incompatible.

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