Better Digital Privacy

A practical guide to better digital privacy

You deserve privacy and convenience!


You’ve seen the headlines about privacy breaches. Headlines where millions of peoples’ personal data is exposed through malicious acts. Even worse are the cases where the company has been negligent or complicit.


Beyond the attention-grabbing headlines, the biggest risk to your privacy is likely self-inflicted. We willingly (or at least semi-knowingly) disclose a treasure trove of data. Treasure is the perfect adjective, because the advertising revenue from your data has resulted in one of the largest creations of wealth in human history. Facebook and Google, who make most of their money from advertising, are worth a combined $1.3 trillion dollars.


Kudos to them for building tools that people want to use. However, the fact remains that their users, which included me until just recently, are the product being sold to advertisers.


Originally, this blog was titled: "Does Privacy Even Matter?" My thesis was (is) that we like privacy but prefer convenience, and why that is backwards. Someday, I will revisit trying to persuade you to take your data privacy more seriously.


If, however, you are concerned about you and your family’s online privacy, this blog gives you practical guidance to make a change. There are many great options to replace ad-supported products on a budget. After many days of research, these are what my family and I use.


My privacy conversion and why it matters for parents


First, I must confess to being addicted to Google and apathetic to the consequences. I fell into the fatalist mindset of ‘I have nothing to hide, why does it matter.’ One answer, and not to make your eyes role, is that privacy is a human right and one that people have died to earn and protect. Seond, and a more practical answer, is that highly targeted ads hurt your quality of life. Companies addict you to their product, take your time, manipulate your behavior and a variety of other things.


As a parent, my kids provide some of the inspiration for my privacy conversion. I want them to have a better future, one where data gathering companies such as Google and Facebook don’t know literally every action they take online. I also refer to this as reducing our kids’ digital footprint.


We all intuitively know that kids today will have their entire life in digital format; whether it’s pictures or social sharing. It’s even scary when you think about how much dominant platforms will know about our kids. Today, kids often seek knowledge online as well as entertainment. Google will practically know everything they like or have learned about via their searches and YouTube watching. Google uses this data to sell ads, but they could use the data in many different ways in the future. This scares me and it isn’t fair to subject our kids to this.


Once I realized that I have been complacent, I started doing research. After reading dozens of privacy policies and expert studies, I am appalled to understand what information companies have on us and the broad latitude they have to use it. It's a secret hiding in plain sight, because we can go into Google and Facebook, for example, and see it all.


Summary recommendations


Here's a quick summary of the changes I made. I have a few ‘other’ tools listed in the detailed section.


  1. Browser: Brave (formerly Chrome)

  2. Search: DuckDuckGo (formerly Google)

  3. Email: Protonmail (formerly Gmail)

  4. Calendar: Apple iCalendar (formerly Google)

  5. File storage and pictures: Sync (formerly Google Drive)


My monthly cost is $8.33 or an increase of about $5.00. This reminds me of the famous MasterCard commercials: annual cost of privacy-respecting services $60; extra peace of mind and doing the right thing, PRICELESS. Your final cost will depend on the size of your family and also what solutions you choose.


Let’s do this!


The disclosure again! These are my personal choices among many great tools available (I/we are not making any money from these recommendations). I believe these will work well for most people.


Phone


First things first. Your phone. It’s with you practically 24/7 and most of your online activity is either initiated or registered on your phone. Customizing your privacy is an essential first step.


Our blog is coming soon: iPhone privacy and control settings. Surprisingly, we couldn’t find a single article that summarizes everything to consider. So, we’re writing one!


Androids are unfortunately less private, because the operating system is made by Google and Google wants to know everything about you. Unless you plan to upgrade soon, here is one guide for steps you can take to reduce how much data you share: https://restoreprivacy.com/secure-android-device/


Online


Browser


Why it matters: changing your browser is the most important things you can do. A browser knows absolutely everything you do even when you're on secure sites or using a VPN.


Recommendation: I use two browsers. My default browser is Brave for work and personal uses. If I’m visiting an ad-heavy site such as yahoo, I’ll switch to Epic Browser, which has a built-in encryption add additional privacy.


Why I love it: Brave has a Shied that serves two purposes. First, it shows what it has blocked, which is a good affirmation for the switch. Second, if the website isn’t functioning as needed (e.g. a bank login) you can lower the shield and have the traditional experience.


How to switch: go to brave.com from your computer or download from the app store.


Search Engine


Why it matters: search engines are a close second in terms of their power to capture lots of personal data that advertisers love.


Recommendation: it turns out there are a lot of options for private searches. I'm using Duckduckgo and have always found what I need. Note: DDG still has ads but they aren't targeted with personal information and don't stalk you around the web.


Why I love it: DDG has a simple interface. My favorite feature is the ability to watch YouTube videos from DDG to avoid the auto-play and recommendations that suck you in at YT. The only downside is saying “I’m going to DDG it” doesn’t roll off the tongue like “googling it.”


How to switch: go to your browser settings and make it your default search option.


Communication & Organization


Email


Why it matters: email contains our private communication and sensitive financial details. Your email contains your online shopping history, information on your statements and where you do business. To protect this information, look for services that offer encryption and ideally zero-knowledge of your information.


We tested many solutions and will offer three for you to consider.


My recommendation: I use ProtonMail connected to a custom domain for about $4/user/month. For me, ProtonMail provided the best combination of absolute security and privacy with a great product interface. They offer a mobile app, a computer encryption app, and migration tools. ProtonMail’s free solution is good for parents and/or kids.


What I love: its email servers are under a mountain in the privacy-friendly country of Switzerland.


Send us an email if you want access to the @villagermail.com address!


Best value: The best value while still having complete security and privacy is Tutanota. Similar to ProtonMail, they have a free plan, and their premium option is only a little over $1/month.


Best value: The best value while still having complete security and privacy is Tutanota. Similar to ProtonMail, they have a free plan, and their premium option is only a little over $1/month.


Best all-in-one: Proton and Tutanota’s only offer email and contact management. This may feel limiting if you’re used to your calendar tool being integrated. FastMail is a great option for people who prefer a single app to do all three. FastMail’s basic plan is $3/month.


How to switch:

  1. Create your new email account. Pro tip: consider setting up aliases that you can use for shopping or newsletters to keep your inbox clean.

  2. Add a signature to your outgoing emails, that has your new email address and a “new” label next to it and some people may notice!

  3. Set your old email account(s) to forward to your new one.

  4. Download your emails and contacts (if desired) from your old address. Mbox is the format used by Google, and their instructions are easy to follow.

  5. Import into your new account following their instructions.

  6. Notify your contacts and start using!


Calendar


Why it matters: your calendar app knows a lot about your life, including who, where and what. This data combined with other information can be useful for selling ads.


Recommendation: I’m now using Apple Calendar with location functionality turned off. It’s an acceptable level of privacy given how little information is in my calendar, and very easy to share with my family.


Why I love it: easy to keep the whole family in-sync (if everyone is in the Apple ecosystem)


How to Switch: follow similar steps to email where you download from your current provider and import into your new account.


File Storage & Photos.


Like email, personal preferences are important. Do you use online storage for sensitive documents like tax returns? Or is online storage for less sensitive needs only. The gold-standard for security is “zero knowledge” storage services. Zero knowledge basically means the provider doesn't have access to your encryption keys. Therefore, the provider couldn't access your data even if they wanted to.


Recommendation: Sync is a cloud-based storage tool like Google Drive, Dropbox or the many other alternatives. For light users, their free 5GB plan will do the trick. If you plan to sync your photos, then you’ll probably need their premium plan $49 / year for your entire family.


What I love: easy to use and share files with my family. They have a browser, mobile app and computer integration that keeps my files everywhere. Their ‘vault’ capability makes it easy to store files in the cloud and not have to customize folder sync settings.


One consideration that is either a positive or a negative depending on your privacy thoughts. Sync is great for automatically uploading your photos. However, it treats your photos as a file. It doesn’t recognize faces or look at meta-data to group by location. Nor will it remind you of ‘this day in history,’ You may consider this a benefit if you find those features creepy. If you like having those tags and your photos being searchable, iPhoto for Apple users is still the best bet for convenience and decent privacy.


How to switch:


Google Drive

  1. Log into Google Drive

  2. For each folder you want to transfer, right-click and select “download” (this downloads a zip folder and converts Google file format to Microsoft Office)

  3. Install Sync or other cloud storage tool so it shows in your File Explorer or Finder window

  4. Drag and drop your files from your downloads folder to your new drive


Google Photos (computer)

  1. Install or log into Backup & Sync to access Google Photos on your computer

  2. Sync your Google Photos folder to your computer

  3. Drag and drop the photos to your new storage tool


That transition can be done from a phone if you have enough storage. Download originals in the Google Photos app and save to your camera roll. Then re-upload in your new app.


Other cloud drives


Migrating from other drives will be easier, since you probably won’t be converting from Google’s proprietary format. Simply have your current and new drives available on a computer and drag and drop to begin the migration.


Productivity & Other


Documents (word processing, spreadsheet, etc.)


Why it matters: the choice here isn’t so much about the tool itself, but rather the ecosystem you are using since the provider will use your data for other commercial purposes.


Recommendation: Apple iWork (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) works well both for privacy and is easy to use with Sync storage. Similarly, Microsoft Office works well and has more universal compatibility (e.g. someone using Apple or Google will be able to open Office documents).


VPN


Why it matters: using public wifi is like playing the lottery. Your devices are vulnerable if you’re unlucky. One of many articles to consider reading: https://due.com/blog/12-reasons-never-use-public-wi-fi/


Recommendation: ProtonVPN because it’s the same outstanding privacy and security bundled with email. NordVPN is also a popular option, but I haven’t tested it.



Map


Why it matters: maps are huge privacy risks, because they track exactly where and when you go places. Not only is this an obvious violation of your personal privacy, but also is a dangerous cog to the advertising machine.


Recommendation: going with Apple's map as the lesser evil, because they don’t have an ad network. There are open source alternatives but none that I would currently recommend.


Social Media


Now for the tough medicine. I deleted everything off my phone.


Why it matters: Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are exclusively funded by ads made possible with your data! Facebook’s (who owns Instagram) data abuses are too extreme to ignore and irresponsible to accept. I will elaborate on this in future posts.


Recommendation: Village….Coming soon!: Village. We're building Village to be a better social network.


Village is supported by our users not advertisers. Our company and product have three pillars.

  1. Privacy - we respect your privacy. We won't track your actions beyond what's necessary for our product. We'll never sell or give third parties access to your data.

  2. Health - We promote mental health and happiness by focusing on authentic relationships. We remove public vanity metrics such as 'likes' and 'followers' that create an unhealthy popularity contest.

  3. Safety - for kids, we protect from cyberbullying, online predators and more. Plus we offer verified identities to encourage behavior similar to what people would be willing to do in real life.


Final thought


I hope you find some of these or similar tools useful. Change isn't fun, but it doesn't take long to be comfortable with the new normal.


Adam Ahern

Adam Ahern

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