The harsh reality of using “free services” from Big Tech
The somewhat good
Looking for an alternative search browser? With all of the new information available that reveals the tracking and spying nature of electronic devices and services offered by big tech companies, there is a surge of interest occurring amongst the more savvy computer users. Many are realizing that all the benefits that come with the customized feeds on Facebook, news articles on Google or detailed routes on Google Maps – come with huge trade offs on user privacy. Often times these “free services” come at the expense of you becoming the product, with your data being sold to the advertisers.
While there are a few companies that strive to ensure you have access to secure computing, there are basic practices one must consider to be certain your browsing and search queries stay private. Many people use popular search engines like Google and Bing for addresses to restaurants, public landmarks and vacation sites. This information is then categorized in a “digital dossier” and attached to user accounts, which companies utilize two-fold. One way Big Tech uses this info, is to serve the user curated personalized content suited to an individual’s personal interests. The other is this selling this information to the highest bidder for advertising purposes.
The not so good
Your likes and dislikes, preferred foods, spritual beliefs, political ideologies and more (Google Search); Your line of work and casual interests (Downloads from App Store, Play Store, etc.); And even your place of residence, work location, your children’s daycare and/or school location, even your daily routes (Apple/Google Maps). While modern technology offers a convenience never seen before today through the cohesive “ecosystems” offered by Big Tech; It doesn’t take a colorful imagination to see how these Technologies can go awry.
Even researchers using popular search engines are at disadvantage, due to huge corporations burying facts under complex algorithms for business, political, and National Security instances.. For example in ‘Baidu Sensors the Internet in China – so do Microsoft, Google and Apple’ article on Wired (link below) it stated, “Chinese tech companies such as search engine Baidu and social media platform Tencent block Tiananmen-related posts and pages to comply with the country’s authoritarian internet rules. Some US companies do their bit, too. Apple and Microsoft censor information in China as a condition of accessing the country’s lucrative but circumscribed population of more than 800 million netizens.” (1)
- Brave – is a web browser that ‘blocks ads and trackers that slow you down and invade your privacy’. Touts itself as being up to 3X faster than Chrome – and awards users for browsing.
- Duck Duck Go – Probably the most popular option on this list, Duck Duck Go is an anonymous search engine that focuses on reducing tracking.
- Ecosia – The environmental-centric search engine, Ecosia uses their profit to plant trees
- Startpage -Startpage’s site subtitle is “the world’s most private search engine”. It promises Un-profiled search results, no trackers or cookies, and no saving, sharing, or selling your data.
- Tor – The Tor Engine, is a browser that features Multi-Layered Encryption, using advanced techniques that make it difficult for users to be fingerprinted based on browser and device information. Endorsed by Edward Snowden, Tor is used by journalists and activist worldwide to ensure secure communications.
While these services are available through web browsers on any device, you can maximize your privacy and security by purchasing ethical computing products by companies like Purism – who use open source, auditable software and Operating Systems. The Librem 14 is laptop powerful enough to serve as a desktop replacement; Librem 5 is a secure, privacy focused smartphone that’s a viable alternative to the mobile duopoly (iPhone and Android); While the Librem Mini and Librem Server cover the spectrum of ethical computing – from home media center to business cloud infrastructure. System76 is another noteworthy brand that is worth considering if you want to ensure you have modular equipment with auditable source code.
Overseas business practices aside, Apple’s devices are the most popular products that are known to prioritize user privacy and digital rights, although it can be argued that the OS and software can’t be audited like Open Source products can. Also, with the recent issues surrounding Apple’s iCloud service (2), it can be argued that entities holding more sensitive information – like governments, security agencies and private businesses – can no longer afford to have their sensitive data stored on a third-party cloud infrastructure. Maybe it’s time for individuals to consider the alternatives as well.