You’ve been in a relationship with Google for a long time now. The US giant has expanded well beyond its original Search product and dominates online life for many people.
But things have become complicated. The last couple of years have seen an increase in anti-monopoly cases (and fines) against the company, staff have increasingly revolted at some of its practices and there’s increased scrutiny on the practices of the online advertising industry. Deleting your Google history may not be enough anymore.
So, what do you do? There’s been a rise in the number of competitors offering privacy-first services that aim to limit the amount of data they collect about users and utilise end-to-end encryption. It’s possible to replace Chrome, Gmail, and the classic Google search with other less privacy invasive options.
There are a myriad of reasons why you may want to move away from Google, but the company’s products are often more user-friendly than rivals and, in the case of search, offer better results. There’s a reason why nine Google services have more than a billion users each. But here’s our pick of everything you should pivot to if your pro-Google veneer is fading.
Google’s offering: Search was the original Google product, breaking through in 1997 when Yahoo!, AltaVista and Ask Jeeves were dominating early web behaviour. Google is still the most dominant search engine, however it stores user data based on what you’re looking for online and links it to user accounts.
The alternative: Founded in 2008, DuckDuckGo has since expanded to have its own web browser but its main product is search. The company says it doesn’t collect, or sell, users’ personal information. Founder Gabriel Weinberg says it doesn’t collect IP addresses and minimises cookie use so people aren’t tracked as they move around the web. Throughout 2019, DuckDuckGo says it has a daily search average of 44 million queries and since its launch there have been 34,481,919,522 total searches.
Google’s offering: Google Chrome. The browser is used by more than 70 per cent of people using the web on desktop. Cookies power advertising tracking, which provides information on the sites you visit and your online preferences, and browser add-ons that make life easier can be given permission to access your Google account. If you search for ‘cars’ through Chrome, Google will get your IP address, the date and time of the query, the page you end-up on, type of device you’re browsing the web on and a cookie ID – such as 740674ce2123a969 – that’s unique to your computer. This cookie number follows everything you do in Chrome.
The alternative: Privacy browsers are on the rise and there’s nothing more private than the Tor browser. You may think that using Tor is complicated or not worth your time: in reality, the network is no different to using any other browser. Through the Tor network, your browsing is passed through layers of encryption and routed through various locations. It’s one of the best ways to protect your identity online. It also blocks trackers, makes everyone’s web browsing appear the same and can help to circumvent government censorship of websites.
Google’s offering: Gmail has a pretty good security record for protecting user data from being exposed – it also offers advanced options for locking down accounts. However, this doesn’t mean it isn’t part of Google’s data collection operation. Through the email confirmations you’re sent when you buy something online, Google is able to follow your shopping history. (See its purchases page for a record of what you’ve been spending money on). This shopping email isn’t used for ads but Google is still singling out the information about your online activity.
The alternative: ProtonMail. Based in privacy-friendly Switzerland, although its parent company headquarters are the US, ProtonMail says it does not store the IP address you use to access your email and aims to offer end-to-end encrypted email by default. (Subject lines of emails are not end-to-end encrypted). The drawback of ProtonMail is that the free version only has limited storage of 500 MB worth of emails, which won’t last you very long. If you’re planning on using it for all your emails, you’ll have to sign up for one of the paid plans.
Google’s offering: The Mountain View firm has never been able to crack messaging. Google’s messaging setup is pretty confusing: there isn’t one main product that’s used more than others. On Android devices, there’s the Messages app which handles SMS although this is pivoting to RCS messages. Google also has Hangouts, and has previously had the Allo app, Google+ Messenger and other now-closed services.
The alternative: The open-source Signal is the app you need to shift to. Created by Open Whisper Systems it uses end-to-end encryption through the Signal Protocol. It is widely considered as the most secure version of end-to-end encryption that’s available and the Protocol has since been adopted by WhatsApp as a way of underpinning its own encryption rollout. The app is available across iOS, Android and desktop and also can replace the default messaging app on phones – handling text messages.
Google’s offering: If you open Google Maps and access its menu, there’s an option to view your timeline (alternatively, click here). This shows you all the places you’ve been and Google has recorded your location. Privacy within maps, which use your location to show you interesting points nearby, is harder to crack than disabling a few settings so you’re almost always going to give away some personal information.
Documents and photos
Google’s offering: Google Drive and Google Photos. The latter recently became the most recent Google service to pass the billion user mark.
The alternative: Beyond self-hosting files, which can be a tricky process, there are a few other providers that offer cloud storage with encryption. Tresorit is one. The company, which like ProtonMail has Swiss roots, uses end-to-end encryption to protect files. The company says it encrypts every file on a device before it is uploaded to its servers. As a result it claims that nobody at the company can access what’s contained in files.
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