Javier Usobiaga, web designer & front-end developer.

I'm on a privacy diet

August 3, 2013

Life post PRISM is scary. The fact that the main IT giants (Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook among others) have a back door to allow the US security agency to check my personal data whenever they want is a difficult pill to swallow. There are several articles about this issue, and it's easy to figure the problems we can face in a personal level (identity theft, invasion of privacy, stalking…) and in a social level (political control, discrimination…).

This reality made me start a "privacy diet": making small changes in my digital life to get more privacy. It's been long since I stopped using my Facebook account, but there are a lot of other places where my privacy can be improved.

I'm a a web designer and I rely on several tools to do my job: my operating system of choice is Mac OS and Chrome is my main developer browser. I'm not planning to abandon them because, right now, my work would suffer because of it; but I can choose different tools for my personal life, and that's what the diet is about: change some habits to protect your online presence. Privacy is not a boolean value, that you have it or not; you can choose to have more or less privacy, and gain more as your habits change in certain ways.

Step 1

My fist step has been recovering Firefox as my personal browser. Chrome is a really good browser and its developer tools are probably the best you can get right now, but behind Chrome stands Google, and they already know too much about me. From now on I will keep developing websites in Chrome, but for any other search or browsing I'll use Firefox, which provides options like "Tell sites that I do not want to be tracked". I've also installed the Facebook disconnect, Google disconnect and Twitter disconnect add-ons to avoid tracking as much as possible, and I'm also testing Disconnect.me. Furthermore, I've configured DuckDuckGo as the default search engine, mainly because they have a strong no-tracking policy.

Step 2

The second step involved changing a bit my iPhone habits. I've started using Dolphin Browser, which allows me to select DuckDuckGo as my default search engine. Using a browser different from Safari is a bit uncomfortable because iOS doesn't let you select your default browser, but I think it's worth the effort.

Step 3

Once I've started applying this diet, I've realized how much Google has invaded my life: their email, search engine, maps, Google Drive, calendar, etc. I already use DuckDuckGo as my default search engine. I'm currently not using Google Calendar (I use Apple's iCloud calendars because I was having sync issues), but I'll probably look for a more private solution, like a self-hosted calendar. However, GMail is almost irreplaceable: its disk storage, its antispam filter, its API and the fact of it being free. There are some similar paid services I could use: Laura Kalbag told me about FastMail.fm, an email provider that allows you to use your own domain and gives you 10GB of storage for about $40 a year. I'm still not quite ready for changing my email provider, but I've decided to stop identifying myself in the digital life with a gmail.com domain. That's why I've recovered my own domain mail, javierusobiaga.com, and started using it as my default email. This domain is still powered by GMail, so it's not really a big change; but if I ever decide to change my email provider, I won't need to change my email in the thousands of websites and digital services where I might have an account. It will be my own domain, no matter who the provider might be.

What's next

Right now, I'm not ready to switch to Linux; I could if I had a separate personal computer that I didn't use for my work… but that's not the case. I won't be changing my iPhone for an Android, because the latter is too linked to Google so I don't think I'd get any privacy improvements; however, I'm starting to consider that my next phone could be a Firefox OS or an Ubuntu Phone. Both projects are quite new, and I'd like to see how they evolve before facing this kind of change, but it's definitely an interesting possibility.

I also find quite intriguing Aral Balkan's project, Codename Prometheus: they're trying to create products that focus on user experience as their core value (the philosophy that made Apple such a great company), but based on open source software. The project has just launched and it'll be some time until we see the first results, but I think it's worth keeping an eye on it.

Meanwhile, I'll keep introducing small new habits in my workflow that improve my privacy diet, and if it makes sense, I will publish them here. I know these changes are no big deal for the huge spying machine PRISM has deployed, but maybe enough of these tiny actions will make a difference.