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Removing Google practically

15 April 2019 10:14 -04:00 / Permalink

It seems as if removing Google from your life is a trend now. Generally, I think this is a good thing, as it means more and more general consumers are picking up on the idea that their data is being misused and abused by big tech companies and that they're signing away their privacy for a slight amount of convenience. However, it's not 100% possible to remove Google completely from your life without greatly putting yourself at a disadvantage. Blocking requests to *.google.com will basically break the internet.

So, as someone who has been living without using Google as much as is practically possible, I figure I can explain some ins and outs of the privacy-centric lifestyle without Google, Apple, et al. I'll try to go from macro (biggest source of data) to micro (smallest source of data).

Browser

Your browser handles almost everything you do on the web. It is the central point where information can be gathered, so it's critical to safeguard your privacy here.

Forunately, this one is really easy. Remove Chrome from your life. Chrome is an abomination at this point, and Microsoft capitulating to Google's Chromium engine doesn't help things. Keeping the internet free, and by extension your privacy, requires some competing implementations here. The obvious choice is Firefox. Firefox is a standards-compliant browser that is heavily customisable and has "pretty good" Some people will complain about Firefox sending telemetry to Mozilla, but that can be easily disabled. Some people also just like to complain. Pocket integration, however, is a valid complaint. defaults for privacy. It can be hardened with about:config settings and addons to be an extremely private but functional browser.

Firefox has been working together with Tor Browser to implement privacy-boosting features designed to make tracking, fingerprinting, etc. more difficult. It has options to block third-party trackers, canvas requests, and more. Even by default, Firefox is miles ahead of Chrome, which feeds your data directly to Google and logs you in to the browser without asking.

For the extremely privacy-conscious, I suggest using Firefox Profilemaker to make a custom profile with settings you want before even launching Firefox.

Of course, a Firefox recommendation would be incomplete without a list of addons. There are several addons for Firefox that increase privacy and security, but this list will just have a few essentials for surviving on the internet without giving away your data and getting tracked.

  • uBlock Origin (GitHub) - uBlock Origin is, without a doubt, the number one addon I would recommend. If you get nothing else, get this. uBlock Origin not only blocks ads, but it can be configured for blocking trackers and all sorts of nasty things.
  • HTTPS Everywhere (GitHub) - HTTPS Everywhere enforces HTTPS where it can, which keeps your connections encrypted. This doesn't prevent trackers that pages load, but it does protect your data from being sniffed over the network.
  • Privacy Badger (GitHub) - Privacy Badger is basically supplemental to uBlock Origin. uBlock Origin blocks requests based on lists of bad domains, but Privacy Badger looks at requests your browser is told to make and it learns based on how those requests are handled. If Privacy Badger detects that a domain is tracking you, it will either block cookies to that domain or block requests to it altogether, depending on which is more suitable.

Personally, I use several other addons, but those three are essentials for any privacy-minded person, which should be anyone and everyone, of course.

Search

I wasn't sure if this should be above or below the browser section, since so much of what is done in the browser is searching. Google has such a market share of the search industry that its name has become synonymous with the action. This doesn't mean, however, that there aren't good or even better alternatives.

The easiest one for most people is just to switch to DuckDuckGo. It feels like Google, but it doesn't track you. It shows ads based on your search keywords, but that's it. The results have always been fine for me, and I used DuckDuckGo as my main search engine quite a while ago, so I can only imagine they've improved.

A more advanced option is searx (GitHub). It's a meta search engine, meaning it's a search engine that searches other search engines. This will give you results from Google, DuckDuckGo, Bing, et al. but it won't perform searches as you, so they can't track you. There's a public instance of searx at searx.me, but you can host your own, too.

Email

Your email is where a lot of data about you lives. Google knows this, and they have preyed upon unsuspecting Gmail users for this purpose. Google keeps your emails unencrypted, meaning anyone with access to Google's systems can read your email (primarily: Google itself). Your email is regularly indexed and scanned for data which is used to perform surveillance advertising. If you've ever gotten eerily specific ads and you got an email about the product not long ago, you've found the culprit.

If you want to take your data back into your hands, ProtonMail is the choice for you. ProtonMail is based in Switzerland and keeps your data encrypted in such a way that you, and only you can read it. Your emails are sent to your browser encrypted, and your browser decrypts them based on the password you give it. Note, however, that emails coming from someone with unencrypted email are stored in their sent folder unencrypted, and if you send an email to someone with unencrypted email, it will be stored unencrypted in their account.

However, ProtonMail keeps your massive collection of data in your email encrypted and out of the hands of a malicious actor like Google. No more targeted ads, no more privacy invasions, no more creepiness.

ProtonMail is free for basic users, but it will cost you for those who need advanced features like custom domains or catch-all email addresses. For the vast majority of people, this isn't necessary, but for someone like me, I happily pay them USD $8/mo.

Phone

This is a difficult one. For me, in the United States, the best phone service provider is hands down Google Fi. You actually cannot beat their offerings, service, and experience. I still use Google Fi. However, I do not have the app installed, which really makes using my phone for anything phone-related a huge hassle.

If you're not using Google Fi, though, removing Google shouldn't be too hard.

Android

If you have an Android phone, the answer is using a custom ROM. I would personally recommend LineageOS, but there are other ROMs without Google's spying software included.

Once LineageOS is installed, you're basically set. Do not install Google Play Services. Google won't be able to spy on you via your phone without them. Note that without Google Play Services, many apps won't work correctly or even at all. Depending on how you use your phone, this may impact you more severely than others. Essentially, your mileage may vary.

For example, Snapchat works, but you can't log in. I had to log in on another Android device with Google Play Services installed, then make a backup of the app and install it on my phone in order to use it.

Any app that uses Google Play Services will warn you with a dialog box when you open it, even if the app works fine without them.

LineageOS without Google Play Services is not for the faint of heart, but depending on how you use your phone (if it's mostly for texts, calls, and emails, you'll be fine), it may work out.

If you can't get away from Google here, consider installing LineageOS with microG, which is an open source implementation of the apps used in Google Play Services, which still gives you greater control over your data than the options Google doesn't give you.

iPhone

Honestly, I'm not 100% sure, since I haven't used iPhone in a long time. As far as I'm aware, Apple is actually pretty decent about data collection. It's a better default than using a stock Android phone. Remove any Google apps, of course, and change your search engine according to the recommendations above.

Remember that Chrome is a Google app and will definitely be used to spy on you, so consider Firefox for mobile (or even Safari).

Exceptions

There are some times where you just have to use Google. If you do, Firefox Multi-Account Containers are useful. Set one up for Google and log into Google in that container. Your normal browsing will be logged out from Google, but if you need to do something logged in, you can open your container and do what you need to without tainting the rest of your browser.

You can, of course, set up containers for other companies, like Amazon, as well.

Review

With all these changes in place, Google has a much smaller part in your life. Like I said at the start of this post, it's just not practical to completely remove Google from your life. Most websites will just straight-up break if you do that. Limiting the data they can collect is sufficient for most people.

There are some things that are hard to replace. Google Docs, for example, is indispensable. I try to use OpenOffice on my computer, but when it falls short or I need to share data, Google Docs is just superior. It is one of the best suites of office software (especially Google Sheets) available; there is no suitable replacement.

The exceptions like this are where a container made specifically for Google is good practice. See the containers section above if you need a a refresher.

Hopefully we'll see a future where it is practical to 100% block everything Google, but we're not there yet.