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Owning Your Data: Prolog

I used to be a huge fan of Google’s product offering. I started using Google Chrome around version 2, in 2009 – before it had added support for extensions, themes, or syncing between devices through your Google Account. It wasn’t a juggernaut on the verge of becoming the internet browser; instead it was introduced via a cute interactive digital comic book, had bright blue colors and an icon that imparted a sense of futuristic alien tech, as if it had fallen from the sky into the office of a bunch of Google hackers, who gifted it to the world.

The original Google Chrome icon

Around the same time, my sisters migrated off their MySpace accounts, following their friends to a hot new site that had finally opened the doors to non-college students called “Facebook”.

I remember when google launched this crazy idea of a word processor that you could use inside a browser. I remember excitedly looking for an excuse to upload and share stuff on Google Drive, sure that it was an interesting experiment that would fade fast.

My close friend in high school got accepted into a crazy beta where Google was handing out free laptops and merely asking for feedback in return. He showed it running this exciting new Linux-based OS that Google was working on.

It is hard to pinpoint the moment Facebook went from curious to creepy; Google from serendipitous to impersonal and monolithic. I wish I could look back and see the last time I had used Google Chrome as my browser, but I know its been a couple years.

Something changed. If I as a user were a frog, I guess I finally decided the water is too hot. But now, stepping out of these massive ecosystems is proving to be much harder than it was diving in.

Winning Back your Data #

The modern privacy landscape is a wreck. This is not exactly a controversial statement. In fact, I’d wager the general response to that sentence is not disagreement, but a tired shrug. Yeah, Facebook, Google et. al. own our lives – that is just the choice we made as a society in exchange for all the cool free stuff, including:

  • Spam emails from “Nigerian Princes”
  • The latest hoaxes, fresh off the press and on top of our feed thanks to Carol, that one girl we kinda knew well enough in high school that we begrudgingly accepted her friend request
  • Shockingly accurate ads… for the slippers we already bought yesterday

You may get the impression that I feel we got a raw deal. Cards on the table: yes, I think we did. The internet advertising behemoth is a result of us taking a miraculously transformative technology that can deliver any information from anywhere to anyone at the speed of light, kludging a quick solution to make it work for modern capitalism, and then refusing to move on from the kludge.

I do think that the era of advertising-funded free services is approaching a fork in the road, where it will either effectively end for anything but the most trivial of services, or morph into something even darker.

Fighting the Fatigue #

Be it Climate Change, Polarization of Society, or Electronic Privacy, it is easy to get decision fatigue and give up. Sure, there are many, many ways to opt out of the circus; lots of weird geeks on the internet have produced guides on how to do so that are simultaneously uncomfortably complex and yet full of unaddressed questions or assumed knowledge.

I don’t blame the average user for not wanting to wade into it.

If we want to change the direction things are headed, it requires more than individual action. We ultimately may need the State to step in and fix things, and that opens up a big can of worms that is out of scope for this essay.

Right here, right now, I’m talking to you, dear reader. As in, you, the person reading this. Perhaps you, like me, have felt increasingly uncomfortable about the stuff you have heard or seen from large tech companies. If you have Google Maps on your phone and signed in, maybe you came across the Google Maps Timeline and after erasing it as fast as you could, started looking for at least a way to get some of your life and data in your own hands.

A Series #

I feel a sense of obligation. I am a software engineer; I see the sausage get made and I can credit my livelihood in part to the work and profit of this industry. What I can offer is not a complete “hermetic seal” solution, but rather steps that are easy to take, require minimum maintenance, and set you up to take additional steps away from the public, ad-supported cloud when or if you feel ready.

I will be tagging all the posts relating to this with the “own-data-series” tag, so you can find it all in one place.

So long for now,