Privacy and Social Media

What can we do?

Even if you only take parts of this to heart – and being honest again, I only do some of these things most of the time – you will have a much more private experience on any of your devices. However, you might not care, either. Trolls and bots, they can’t affect you, you’re just you from little-town Canada, right? Information from trolls and bots pops into your feed, daily. It did during the recent election, and is continuing to do so during the pandemic. And in case you didn’t pay attention during the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica affair, it’s worth a refresher.

The personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users were acquired via the 270,000 Facebook users who used a Facebook app called “This Is Your Digital Life.”

Via Wikipedia

So, less than 300,000 people start using an app on Facebook, but over 87 million people have their personal information accessed; in Canada, over 600,000 users were affected. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump used CA’s data in their political campaigns, and it was used as part of the Brexit movement. The whole thing was essentially brought down by a Canadian Employee, Christopher Wylie, who also provided proof of links between CA and Russian interests. So, if you are thinking “who cares, my little data bits are inconsequential”, no they aren’t – you might expose your entire friends list.

If you have come this far… thank you. It’s been a journey and a rant to read and listen to me while I stand on my soapbox. So, what can you do? How can you fix this, and make sure that you both keep your own privacy, manage your own security, and most importantly be mindful of your data. Here are some tips that I can give you for what you can do to combat some of the truly sinister behaviour, and you won’t like them. They are a pain in the ass. But they are a way to take back a whole bunch of your privacy, so temper it with that.

Turn off active listening

“Hey Google” or “Hey Siri” or “Hey Alexa” are great. Turn their ambient listening off, and force the assistant to be fired with a physical trigger, like pressing a button. First, your phone’s battery life will increase dramatically. Second, it won’t be listening to every word you say. This is important: they aren’t listening for “trigger words”, they are listening to all the words, uploading them, and parsing them in the cloud to see if they have correctly captured a trigger word. The devices are always listening to you. So what? The CIA and MI5 may have been listening too, according to Wikileaks. THE CIA. THE MI5. Although there may be times when that’s useful, like helping to solve a murder, it’s probably best to turn them off.

Don’t use Google as a search engine

Use any other search engine than Google. Google has far removed itself from their previous “Don’t be evil” mantra, which was governing the company from the start; it was originally coined to steer the company away from spyware and spam as it grew. In 2018, Google removed the phrase as some kind of guiding principal, denigrating it to a footnote in their mission statement.

“Google makes its money from targeted ads that rely on knowing as much about us as possible. Every single product in its catalogue, from virtual assistants that tell you the weather to AI-based email that can finish your sentences for you, ultimately lead to showing you better, more effective ads.”

Alexei Oreskovic in Business Insider May 18, 2018

Google doesn’t want to give you anything for free. Your G-mail is read by Google, your Youtube watch history is data-mined by Google, and all they want to do is serve you more and targeted ads. I rely on some of their services too – I even have paid memberships in some cases – but the reality is that Google is fairly evil. They were fined $2.7 Billion USD and a further $1.7 Billion USD for repeated European anti-trust violations. The big daddy, home turf, the United States of ‘Murica, is levelling their anti-trust firepower at them next, both at a Federal and a State level. India and other countries are also lining up because Google is just not being cool. Anyone remember the last really cool company that became not cool through an anti-trust investigation? Microsoft, who ironically now is one of the companies that trips over themselves to be more transparent, and to be more customer and privacy focused.

Seriously, Google is insidious. They are Skynet waiting to happen. They are where all the massive AI investments are being made. Google Photos auto-albums anyone? Those are child’s play for their AI. Think of what they can do behind the scenes to advance their agenda. And it’s not just me – I’m not a tin-foil-hat wearing freak in his mom’s basement – there are many others that have taken a hard look at Google and been creeped out.

So what to use instead? Well, given my long history of backing things that are on the fringes (for the interested nerds among us: OS/2, Lotus Suite, Blackberry, and Windows Phone, amongst many, many others), I actually use Bing. There are some good things about Bing, not the least of which is the gorgeous photo of the day. Seriously, go click on that link and take a look. There’s a new one of those photos every day. (This program will put it on your desktop and lockscreen automatically each day.) When you use Bing, and you compare it to Google, the results will look different. Aside from how they both show ads – you know search engines sell ads in the results, right? – they also differ because of different philosophies on Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Microsoft has buckets of money to throw at Bing, so it’s a good search engine, and Microsoft is much more interested in your privacy than is Google; Google is interested in putting paid links at the top. Plus, Bing gives you points to let you buy stuff – hokey, kind of, but a neat idea.

The other one that I recommend, the super-private one that I flirt with from time to time, is Duck-Duck-Go. Intense privacy, no ad trackers that follow you around everywhere, and ad-free results (I think one token ad, clearly marked). You will be amazed at the difference, and it’s all down to the SEO. Warning: the results will be very different from Google, as they will be much “cleaner”. You will hate it at first.

Remove your social media apps from your phone

Where possible, use them via the web (GASP). Here’s an experiment for you: go to https://mobile.twitter.com. This is twitter’s web app, and it works in a responsive fashion on your phone – right within your browser. It looks exactly like the mobile version, right? It’s a Progressive Web App, and it’s kind of the future of things going forward. Back in 2007, even Steve Jobs was looking forward to PWAs in a way – and then he found a way to monetize the app store. Here’s the thing, though. If you are an app developer – even a small one – do you want to program for Windows, Mac, iPhone and Android, or do you want to program once and have it work anywhere and everywhere. Also, do you want to keep paying a 30% shakedown vig to Apple or Google or whomever is running the web store? Can you put your app entirely on the web? Twitter shows that you can.

But Instagram! They’re phone only, right? No, you can go to their website on your phone and get your Instagram fix, and according to this link, it works just like the app. I don’t know, I’m not an Instagrammer (?), but this is what the man says. Just copy / save the website to your home screen, and you are away (I’m not here to give technical support, so you can Google Bing that to find out how.

There is a side benefit to this too. Your phone carries a tremendous amount of personal data outside of these apps, including contacts, photos, and location data. You have probably given these apps permission to access them (it’s just to find your friends, right?). Not having the apps on your phone means a) they are not constantly accessing the data on your phone (which you know they do, if you’ve read this far), and b) they are not constantly running in the background, phoning home, and draining your battery. If you want amazing battery life, get rid of your social media apps on your phone, and use them through the PWAs.

Don’t sign in to new sites with your Facebook/Google account. Use e-mail.

I know, such a pain to sign in with an e-mail address. Then they have to mail you a confirmation link at the start, and you have to remember a password (I’ll talk about passwords later). Except – why would you want to give away all that information? Why would you want whatever site you are checking out because of your friend Julian’s recommendation – and that you know literally nothing about – access to all that data? Convenience? Think about the cost of the convenience. It’s not just a sign-on, it’s a connection in the background that you have no control over, where you haven’t looked at the EULA for both companies to see what data they will trade (all of it), just to save a precious 18 seconds and satisfy your instant gratification needs. Plus, it puts at risk one account the one that, if hacked, compromises you everywhere – and we all know people whose Facebook accounts have been hacked.

Don’t use Chrome

Use another browser, anything but Chrome. Please. Chrome, made by Google, is their window into you. It is the Dyson through which they will suck up all of your data, and like the Dyson, Chrome never loses suction. It is also not the greatest for battery life, to be honest, so you might have more untethered time using something else – your mileage may vary.

What to use? I recommend Firefox, which I have used on my PCs and my phone for years. Firefox is open-source, which means it is peer-tested and there isn’t anything lurking on the back-end, and runs on their own rendering engine. There is also Brave which is fairly new, and has the interest of the security-minded right now; it is very secure, but runs on the Chrome rendering engine. If you are on Windows 10, Microsoft’s new Edge browser is also based on Chromium. That means you can use all the Chrome extensions that you like if you have any. I’m experimenting with the new Edge while writing this post, and it’s responsive and it gets out of the way, just like a browser should. Both Brave and Edge have apparently “de-Googled” the Chrome engine. Finally, there is Opera, which admittedly I don’t know much about, but has some interesting features; I don’t believe it is as safe as some others, given that it links to social media like Instagram and places it right in the sidebar of the browser – which some of you may like. My money is still on Firefox which cares a heck of a lot about your privacy.

What about Safari? I hear it’s pretty safe, but I hate it and think it’s very limited – and it isn’t cross platform. One of the nice things about using another browser (even edge) is you can sync your links to all instances of the browser – history, bookmarks, and current tabs. Safari, not so much unless you are all-in on Apple.

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Insurance is my profession, and one of my passions. Motorcyclist, runner, skier, photography newbie. Nerdy tech geek, craft beer enthusiast. Thoughts are my own. Snark is omni-present.

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