Hello, and welcome to the distant future, the year 2020 to be precise! If you’re just arriving here, you might expect a lot has changed, and indeed it has; however, instead of hoverboards and flying cars, we have corporate-controlled web standards and operating systems that constantly phone home to report your data. What a time to be alive…
But a new year offers new opportunity, and now is a great time to resolve to make 2020 the year that you start taking data privacy and security more seriously in your life. If you’ve read some of my other articles, maybe you’ve already done some of these things (don’t worry, there will be a few new things to try as well). If this is your first time reading my series, feel free to use this as an intro guide on where to start.
Let’s take a look at my top steps for taking back control of your data, privacy, and security in 2020.
Data Privacy Tips — Easy Mode
First up, let’s look at some really easy data privacy tips that anyone can do, right now, without much inconvenience.
- Switch your search engine. Google makes a lot of money; in Q3 of 2019, they had revenues of over $40 billion. Now ask yourself, where did that revenue come from? Some of it comes from their hardware and services sales, but the vast majority still comes from ad revenue, and that is made possible by selling targeted access to your data. Instead of letting Google profit off of your data, consider switching your searches to a search engine company that takes your data privacy seriously. DuckDuckGo is my preferred option (as a bonus, they have a great dark mode theme!).
- Change your web browser. As of January 2019, Google Chrome had over a 50% share of the desktop browser market. On top of that, Microsoft announced that they were throwing in the towel on their own browser’s engine, and using Chrome to power their Edge browser. All of this means that Google has incredible leverage over the Internet and the standards it uses. On top of that, Google uses their Chrome integration to feed ever more data into their ad platform. To stop Google from profiting off of your data, and to ensure the Internet’s standards aren’t controlled by a single company, consider switching your browser to Mozilla Firefox. The Firefox browser has improved tremendously over the last year, to the point that I have no reservations recommending it as your daily-driver browser.
- Install an Ad Blocker. Ads are everywhere on the Internet, and some of them even deliver harmful malware. To stop that from happening (and to just have an overall more pleasant experience browsing the web), you should install the uBlock Origin extension. It’s free, open-source, and available for Firefox, Chrome, and Edge.
- Stop using social media. Did you know that some studies have shown strong links between social media usage and depression? Or that private companies have used your data on social media to target you and try to influence how you (and others) vote? How many hours do you spend mindlessly scrolling through your social media wall each week? Why not try spending a week away from it, and see if it improves your life, both from a data privacy and a mental health perspective. If you’re not ready to make the leap just yet, try at least uninstalling the mobile apps and limit yourself to viewing and posting via the browser?
Data Privacy Tips — Hard Mode
So the easy stuff is out of the way; everyone reading this article can and should have done all of that. We’re going to get a bit more advanced now, but with a bit of patience and guidance, most people should be able to get through this!
- Switch to Linux. Your operating system runs everything on your computer, and as such, it is privileged with a lot of information and access. As of December 2019, Windows 10 had almost 60% of the desktop operating system market, and as we established earlier, Microsoft likes to have their OS phone home. On top of that, Windows is expensive (especially if you have multiple computers) and is heavily targeted by spyware and malware creators. Why not ditch all of that and use something better: Linux. There are many different versions of Linux (you could write an entire article about it), but my current favorite is Ubuntu Linux. The latest version is both faster and easier than ever, and it really is just a pleasure to use.
- Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Speaking of companies that love your data, let’s not forget about your Internet Service Provider, or ISP. A running theme through this entire article is that your data is valuable, and everyone is trying to collect and sell it, and your ISP wants in on that action. You can think of a VPN as a type of tunnel that connects you to the outside world. Your ISP can see where you go in (your house) and out (the VPN) of the tunnel, but can’t see anything moving through the tunnel. If you want to keep your ISP out of the loop, a VPN is a very affordable way to do it. Mozilla (makers of Firefox) have one in beta for Windows 10, and are coming out with other platforms soon. In the meantime, Mullvad is another good option.
Data Privacy Tips — Boss Mode
So you breezed through all of the above, but you’re craving a challenge? Here’s one last tip to help with your data privacy: Host your own web service on a Virtual Private Server (VPS). Web services like Google Drive, Office 365, and even services like Netflix and Disney+ are all amazing, but also goldmines for user data. Everything you type, store, and watch is fair game to be harvested and sold. Want to stop this? Start up a VPS and install your own web service. It takes a bit of knowledge and practice to understand what a VPS is and how to use it, but once you’ve done that, many of the open-source web services aren’t too hard to install. A few of the more popular VPS providers are Digital Ocean, OVH, and Hetzner.
One of my favorite web services (which I’ve covered before) is Nextcloud, a replacement for Google Drive. There are lots of other cool services out there like Plex (Netflix/Disney+ replacement), Rocket.chat (Slack replacement) and more.
From a data privacy standpoint, 2019 was sort of a mixed-bag. On the one hand, private companies encroached ever-further into our lives, gathering data, analyzing trends, packaging it all up, and selling it off to third-parties. On the other hand, companies like Mozilla and Canonical, along with organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (consider donating), all did great work to both defend our digital privacy rights and create technology to help give us back control.
One area of technology that is sadly struggling with data privacy is mobile. The landscape is ruled by Apple and Google, the latter of which is already one of the largest offenders for selling access to data. I’m optimistic though that 2020 is going to be a year of strong development on that front, with great hardware initiatives from Pine 64 (with their soon-to-be-released PinePhone, which I hope to write an article about when I get one) and Purism (with their Libra 5 phone), as well as great mobile operating system options like UBPorts.
And who knows…maybe we’ll get our hoverboards someday…
Hopefully you enjoyed this article! To get some more great Practical Privacy tips, check out my other articles!