What do your internet browser, the company you just bought shoes from, and the search engine you used to find last night’s dinner recipe all have in common?
They’re all tracking every click you make on the internet, and they’re all selling that data to the highest bidder. Tech giants like Google and Facebook create detailed (think 10,000 data points detailed) profiles of every user, regardless of whether the user consents to sharing data.
Our podcast guest this week, Shoshana Zuboff, dives into the complex and harrowing world of data collection, exposing the seedy underside of big tech, and explaining why they know so much more about you than you do of them.
Listen to her interview with Mila here:
If that piques your interest, check out her fantastic book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalismfor more!
How much does Google know? Well, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google owns “about 62% of mobile browsers, 69% of desktop browsers, and the operating systems on 71% of mobile devices in the world. 92% of internet searches go through Google, and 73% of American adults use YouTube. Google runs code on approximately 85% of sites on the Web and inside as many as 94% of apps in the Play store.”
Everything (literally every click and mouse movement) you do on a Google controlled platform or website with a Google tracker gets sent to them. They use a system called “real-time bidding” to auction that data off to advertisers and others. Google doesn’t spend a lot of time advertising this—probably because of the overwhelming creep factor.
Unfortunately, we still need to use the internet, and big tech is unlikely to relinquish its stranglehold on your data, so what can you do to keep your data private? Here are five ways to turn your firehose of information into a trickle, although we can’t promise it will dry up completely:
1. Choose Your Web Browser Carefully
Your internet browser is your portal to the online world, and so everything you do online goes through it. If you’re using Google Chrome, Google is collecting information about everything you do on the Web, not just on Google websites or websites with Google trackers. It’s so bad that one tech expert went so far as to call Google Chrome “spy software.” Microsoft Edge is owned by Microsoft, who plays the same data game Google does, so don’t use that either. Your best bet for a (slightly) more private experience is Mozilla Firefox. Firefox is independently run, and actively works to protect your data from prying eyes. It’s not all you need, but it’s a good start.
2. Protect Your Email
If you use Gmail, Google is reading your emails. If this doesn’t disturb you, you can go ahead and skip the rest of this blog post. Verizon owns Yahoo, and Microsoft owns Outlook. While they might not have the same level of predatory practices Google does, they’re still reading things they shouldn’t be. If you need to make sure your email is secure from prying eyes, check out ProtonMail. It’s free, end-to-end encrypted, and based in neutral Switzerland.
3. Search the Web Privately
Google’s flagship service conveniently doubles as their most significant source of behavioral data: Google Search. Every search query you’ve ever entered gets logged by Google and used to make your profile slightly more accurate. Google fields 63,000 searches a second, and the average user searches 3-4 terms a day. Instead, use DuckDuckGo. They don’t store any of your data, and while the results sometimes aren’t as good as Google’s, that’s how you know they aren’t tracking you!
4. Block Those Trackers
Almost every website you’ll ever visit has trackers. Trackers are a catch-all term to describe companies who harvest your online data. They use tools like pixels, cookies, and fingerprinting to collect that data, and once they have it, they are free to sell it however they see fit. To combat these hidden pieces of code, you can download extensions like Ghostery or uBlock Origin. These browser add-ons identify and block trackers from collecting your user data on each site you visit. As a bonus, they can also block ads (which sometimes double as trackers).
5. Get a VPN
Google, Microsoft, and Facebook aren’t the only ones collecting your data. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast are also in on the surveillance capitalism game. Your ISP can see the URL of every website you visit, how much time you spend online, what you sign up for, as well as anything you post on social media. Using Firefox or Ghostery won’t protect you from their monitoring, because you’re still using an ISP to access the Web, no matter where you are. The best way to stop this is by purchasing a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPNs allow your PC to connect directly to another computer somewhere in the world (using secure encryption) and use that computer’s internet connection to surf the Web. It will change your IP Address, skewing user data collected by online sources, and it will protect you from ISPs by encrypting your communication with the VPN server. VPNs are relatively cheap, work well, and foil multiple levels of data collection and monitoring. If you get one thing from this article, it’s that you need a VPN in 2020. Here is a list of the best VPNs. Shop around on their various websites; often, they’ll have deeply discounted introductory deals or flash sales. There are many options based on your specific needs.
We hope these tips will allow you to regain some of your online autonomy, and let you breathe a little easier as you surf the Web. Using privacy software doesn’t mean you’re up to no good, it means you are pushing back against the idea that surveillance is the norm, and only those with something to hide should be concerned about data collection.
“If you have nothing to hide, then you are nothing,” Zuboff told us in her interview. “Because everything that makes us who we are, our identities, our values, our fantasies, our visions, our promises, our anticipations of the future, our emotions, and our creativity is honed within us, within the private sanctuary of our own hearts and minds. And if that is exposed, it is transformed by transparency into something far more arid, something far more frozen, something that no longer has the spark of the unpredictable, which is the essence of creativity, the miracle of human action.”
Stay safe online, everyone.
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