Living Without Big Tech
December 26, 2021•2,824 words
As a systems engineer for one of the largest computer companies in the world, I never thought I'd be so driven to eliminiate "big tech" from my life. Being in the industry and knowing what is possible, I've long been concerned about digital privacy and security. I take many precautions to protect myself and my family from the prying eyes of major tech companies, and the grubby paws of hackers & scammers.
It's not just about using strong passwords and 2FA for everything. You also have to be concerned about your digital information falling into the wrong hands or being collected, exploited, and sold for profit to the highest bidder.
Now, when I say "Big Tech", I'm mainly referring to the five behemoths which consist of Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta (Facebook), and Microsoft. But we might as well throw Netflix and Twitter in there as well. There are several other tech companies I would consider monopolistic and dangerous, but the ones I've listed here are the major players and have a disturbing amount of control over anyone who uses a computer, smartphone, or consumes any sort of TV and/or streaming media.
Hopefully I don't need to explain all the reasons why these tech giants pose a threat to the lives of every person on the planet. They are the dominant forces in their respective areas of technology which includes online (and offline) advertising, e-commerce, cloud computing, consumer electronics, computer software, media streaming, entertainment, artificial intelligence, smart homes, self-driving cars, social networking, news, books, and more. Collectively, they touch and control pretty much every aspect of our day-to-day lives.
They offer goods & services (many of which are "free") to multiple millions of users, and therefore have control over our data and can control our behavior in a variety of ways. Their questionable business practices have been the target of multiple antitrust, fraud, and other investigations over the years by the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). They have also been investigated in other countries such as the UK.
The impact these companies have on privacy, market power, free speech, censorship, national security and law enforcement have all been called into question. It's almost impossible to live in the digital world today, without being impacted somehow/some way by the ecosystem(s) these companies have created.
For several years now, I've been making strides toward eliminating these big tech giants from my life. Unfortunately, given the line of work I'm in, it's just about impossible to completely eliminate the death grip they have.
Working in Corporate America, and being an IT professional, I need a computer and phone to do my job. Since my company dictates what equipment I can use, I am issued a laptop running Microsoft Windows, and a phone running either Android (Google), or iOS (Apple). Not a lot of choices here folks! I would love nothing more than to run Linux on my laptop and phone, but I don't have a choice as long as I am an employee of the company. I heard a rumor they might be rolling out some flavor of Linux as a supported corporate OS in 2022. I'll be first in line for that whenever it becomes available!
For personal computing, I do run a Linux virtual machine on my corporate laptop using VMware Workstation. I use this for non work-related stuff such as browsing, shopping online, personal banking, etc.
For my phone, I refuse to be that guy carrying multiple phones (personal, work and business), so I opted for the iPhone (iOS) Corporate-issued device. I feel Apple has a little more respect for privacy than Google does.
The other unfortunate part of working in Corporate America is that you're pretty much going to be stuck with the Microsoft Office suite of software. And sure enough, my job is no exception. We use Office 365 which includes email (Outlook/Exchange), cloud storage (OneDrive), and all the Office apps such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, etc.
Taking back control...
Until I retire from Corporate America, I don't have much control or say over the technology & services I use for work. But in my personal life and business, I have all the control. Here are a few things I've done over the years to slowly and methodically eliminate the grasp big tech has on my life:
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
I'm not going to get into a lot of detail here since this is a huge topic and there are many great VPN services out there. Bottom line... USE ONE! If you ever connect to the Internet at a hotel, in a restaurant, in a coffee shop, at a friends home, or anywhere else for that matter -- you ABSOLUTELY should be using a VPN to protect your privacy and digital security.
I wrote an article about how to protect yourself with a free VPN which should help explain more. I've since switched to a paid VPN service, but OpenVPN is still a great choice for anyone who can't spend the money.
Browsing & Searching
I stopped using mainstream browsers and search engines years ago. Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge are a definite NO for me. I prefer to use either Mozilla Firefox, Brave, or Vivalidi. These browsers are much more secure and respect your privacy. They also have nice features built in such as blockers for ads and trackers. And they don't collect your data.
For search, I switched to DuckDuckGo many years ago and stopped using Google. Keep in mind, you also need to install the DuckDuckGo browser plug-in to take full advantage of the privacy and security features. No matter which browser I use (even Chrome or Edge at work), I always set DuckDuckGo as my default search engine and install the plug-in.
On mobile, I also use the DuckDuckGo mobile browser and turn on all the available privacy & security features.
I'm proud to say I kicked Google's Gmail to the curb in 2019. I not only wanted to protect our personal data from the prying eyes of Google, but my wife & I also run a business and didn't want Google data mining our business information for their nefarious purposes. After much research and comparing of features & pricing, we switched to a service called Fastmail and I could not be happier!
Fastmail is privacy-focused and has an absolutely delightful list of features which they are always adding to. It's perfect for our business because we can each have our own private mailboxes at our personal domain, and then share the email from our business domain -- all in the same interface.
Fastmail pricing is extremely fair and very competitive. If you think your "free" email (ie. Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc) doesn't have a cost, think again! Whenever you use "free" products or services, the reality is that YOU are the product. They are mining all your personal data so it can be used for targeted advertising and sold to the highest bidder. Make no mistake.... "Free" is NEVER free.
There are other great email services that respect your privacy and digital security. ProtonMail and Tutanota are two excellent ones that come to mind. In fact, these have a slight edge over Fastmail because they offer end-to-end encryption. But that encryption only protects you fully if ALL parties you communicate with are also using that same email service. So for me, Fastmail fit the bill perfectly and provided all the features I needed & wanted. Who knows, maybe they will eventually add encryption too!
Like most people, I suspect, I like to store my files in the cloud and have them easily accessible across multuple computers and mobile devices. It's also nice to be able to share files with others by sending a simple link. Well, I used to use "free" cloud storage space from Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive for storing my files and keeping them accessible across different computers and devices. Google Drive offered a lot of convenience due to their online applications for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation. Dropbox was also quite nice for backing up and storing pictures from our mobile devices.
But again, "free" is never free. These companies give you free space because they are trying to A) lure you into a paid plan after you fill up the meager free space they provide, and B) data mine your personal files for information they can use for advertising, selling, and developing/promoting other services.
So a few years ago I switched to a cloud storage service called Koofr. They are based in Slovenia and have secure data centers across the EU. They are privacy focused, they don't collect personal/private information, and they offer end-to-end encryption of all data.
The cool thing is, you can connect your Koofr account to other popular cloud storage services such as Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive. This makes it incredibly simple to copy all your files over to your Koofr storage. They also support iOS and Facebook for connecting and backing up media files such as pictures & videos.
Yes, they do offer 2GB of free space to try out their service. And if you sign up using my link, you'll get an extra 2GB which is free forever and includes all the privacy features.
I haven't had a sigle issue with Koofr since purchasing a 1TB account. Their support has been great, the features are awesome, and I've been able to connect everything to my Koofr space using either direct integration or WebDAV. They also offer online "office" tools similar to Google Drive so I can securely create documents, spreadsheets, etc.
Oh boy, this is a huge topic... I really don't have time in this article to get into all the various choices and issues with messaging apps. In a nutshell, if you are sending SMS/MMS text messages (or doing Facetime calls) using the native application on your phone, or if you are using Facebook Messenger, you have ZERO privacy. Your cell phone carrier can see all your text messages. And do I really need to tell you how Facebook uses your "private" messages? It's not a coincidence that you can mention just about anything in a conversation on Messenger, and then almost immediately start seeing advertisements for it on Facebook. Hmm. 🤔
The same goes for all the other methods of communication such as Google Voice/Hangouts, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and so on. There are probably hundreds of different messaging apps out there and I can't list them all. Please don't try to tell me that apps like WhatsApp are private because they offer encryption, blah, blah, blah. Facebook (Meta) owns WhatsApp and I would place zero trust there.
If you really want to communicate securely, you need to use an open-source privacy-focused, encrypted app such as Signal. But again, as with email, your communications are only secure if everyone you communicate with is also using Signal. You can use Signal as your default app for SMS/MMS (on Android, not iOS), but if you send a text message to someone who is not using signal, your communication is not secure or private. UPDATE Oct 2022: Signal is phasing out the ability to use their app for SMS on Android.
Signal-to-Signal messages are 100% secure & private and can never be seen or read by anyone except you and the person on the other end. You can even set automatically dissappearing messages and restrict the ability for anyone to take a screenshot of your messages.
Ugh... I hate this topic. First of all, let me state that I DO NOT currently use any social media except for Facebook. And the only reason I still have a Facebook account is because we have a business page that we need to maintain. Unfortunately, to have a business page on Facebook, you are required to have a personal account as well. Admittedly, there are a few private groups on Facebook I like, but I could certainly live without them.
Over the past several months, I have systematically locked down the privacy and security of my Facebook account, I've removed all special interests they ask about in your profile, and I've also deleted all my past posts. The only thing I haven't removed yet is all the mentions from others or posts others have made to my page. Those will be gone soon as well.
I'm debating whether I want to completely delete my Facebook account and just use my wife's account if I need to post someting to our business page. Haven't fully decided what I want to do there yet.
But as far as other Social Media, I don't have Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Snapshat, LinkedIn, or anything else for that matter. I think I might still have an account on Parler, but I don't use it. I've never seen the point of all these social media platforms, and I haven't felt like I'm missing out on anything for not having them. If you currently spend a majority of your day interacting on social media, you might want to watch this.
This last section is about one company -- Amazon. Most people are completely unaware how evil this company is. Not only do they ban and remove books & products that don't fit their political narrative, but they are also willing (and able) to completely destroy other companies whenever they want to. Not to mention, they treat their employees like garbage which can easily be confirmed with a bit of searching and reading online.
You may have heard the story about Amazon shutting down the new social media platform, Parler, on January 10, 2020. This action came after Apple & Google both banned the Parler app from their app stores so nobody could download it. Then Amazon decided to kick Parler (a paying customer!) off their AWS hosting platform with only 24-hours notice.
I don't even want to get into the politics of this story. Regardless of the reasons Google, Apple and Amazon cited for their actions against Parler, it was wrong. And it demonstrates very clearly how powerful these companies are. If they don't like you or agree with you, your beliefs, or political leanings, they simply destroy you.
Having said all that, on January 27, 2020, I cancelled my Amazon Prime membership and haven't purchased a single item from them since. I also haven't used my Amazon Prime Visa credit card since then. I'm done with Amazon and will never go back.
Guess what? Life didn't change at all. I purchase directly from companies who make products, or I purchase from various stores online. I still get very fast shipping, most of the time free shipping as well, and prices are typically the same or even cheaper than Amazon. Most people don't even price-shop Amazon. They incorrectly assume that Amazon always has the cheapest price, and that's exactly what Amazon wants you to believe. Well, it's not true folks. Check it out for yourself and stop giving all your money to the evil empire!
I even sold my Amazon Kindle e-reader to my sister and purchased a Kobo. I couldn't be happier with it. It has more features than a Kindle, and even integrates directly with my library for borrowing free books. It also integrates directly with Dropbox for syncing PDF's and other files to your Kobo e-reader. I'm hoping they add WebDAV support in the future so I can use that integration with my Koofr account. 😋
Wow, this article ended up being a lot longer than I originally planned. I think I pretty much covered all the areas where I've been able to get away from Big Tech.
There are a lot more opportunities to improve my privacy and digital security. I will continue to make small improvements and changes whenever the opportunity presents itself.
When I do eventually retire from my tech job in Corporate America, I will be immediately switching to a secure laptop running Linux, and a open-source/open-hardware smartphone. There are many great smartphone alternatives on the market already, and they keep getting better.
Just imagine a phone with a 5-year warranty that you could actually open up and replace the battery or parts yourself? Remember those days? Well, it's coming back! This is what people want, and the market will always provide solutions. The Fairphone currently runs Android, but I'm sure there will be open-source alternatives coming in the future.
Stay tuned... There could be a "Part 2" coming soon!
Affiliate Disclaimer: Some links in the above article are affiliate/referral links for services I use and love. If you use any of my links to sign up for the associated service, I may get a little freebie, additional time added to my account, or a small piece of the financial pie to help support my blog.