My attitude is a defiance of what I already knew to be true, but I had lost my nerve for a few months as of Saturday, November 7th. I forgot the old axiom I live by: “What Is” is never as scary as “What Appears To Be”.
To be more specific, the base of my fears had me forgetting Hanlon’s Razor: Don’t assume evil if it might be incompetence. I also forgot something I put on my own website essay about large-group conflicts:
Either way, most of this fear came from technical unpreparedness. If you’re unable to tend to your own issues, you’re not particularly safe.
With that said, I’ve made it a priority to largely detach myself from Big Tech. The traders like to call it FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google), but I think Microsoft and Twitter fit into it as well.
So, without further lead-in, here’s my anecdotal guide for your surveillance-resistant living.
Get acquainted with the concept of open-source. While I’m working to build out a website that expands the idea a bit more, open-source software means that literally anyone can see and edit what’s in the code. This creates several benefits:
- If there are any security vulnerabilities, random Good Samaritan geeks can patch it up immediately, and they often want to because it makes their resume look good.
- Anyone who wants to see the logic that makes the computer run have the freedom to investigate.
- If there’s any cool features that would make life better, random geeks can add it, and they often do it because it improves their life and they like how their resume looks.
Now, “open-source” can only apply to part of the code, or the code might be open-source but can only be programmed by a closed-source programming language.
In general, trust Linux and its derivatives. They tend to have funny names like OAuth and GPT3bl, but are that way because it was made by a bunch of tech geeks instead of getting filtered through a marketing firm first.
Try to get rid of middlemen. They make life easier (e.g., PayPal instead of bank cards), but they don’t necessarily make it safer. In fact, with all the corporations getting hacked by who-knows-where, a hacker has more avenues to gain enough information to “spoof” your identity when there are more intermediaries involved in your lifestyle decisions.
If you have a smartphone (and who doesn’t?) closely monitor “permissions” in the app settings. Ditto for your web browser. While you may have approved your cell phone’s camera use for that app scanning that QR code, that means it has unlimited permission until you turn it off. Tedious, but one of the safer things you can do.
Getting rid of most social media is easy, just don’t use it anymore.
However, what will you do to spend your time?
The latest social media craze has conditioned us to fill our time with endless low-quality experiences. Ideally, according to their design, we are habit factories who endlessly consume and occasionally produce content among each other every waking hour of the day.
In other words, I’m asking everyone to seriously consider more self-reflection and less consuming. If you want to consume more, make sure it’s high-quality stuff, and try to favor things from across the spread of history. More PBS and less BuzzFeed. more r/AskHistorians and less r/Politics.
If you’re particularly paranoid, you can delete everything from your social media accounts. I used a Firefox plugin called FB Message Cleaner to quickly do it for Facebook (with some glitches), but it’ll be messy and/or tedious because those media accounts don’t want you to delete your content.
If you still like getting updates, I highly recommend RSS feeds, which are a stable protocol that’s about as old as the internet. There are a ton of RSS readers available, or you can do what I do and pipe them into my email via Blogtrottr. While you may feel it’s a step backward, Twitter is technically a you-curated RSS feed.
If you’re really feeling like building a new system, I recommend self-hosting a new social network. Facebook is nothing more than a
database network where you manage permissions friend requests to view updated data from other users others’ personal information.
WhatsApp is huge, especially if you work on an international team. Try to avoid it if you can and use Signal. There are a lot of options, with varying degrees of features, but Signal is a safe bet these days. Signal is also becoming popular enough that it might become Big Tech in 5 years!
In general, you can’t easily unlink WhatsApp from your phone because it’s tied directly to the phone number. WhatsApp Web is simply a workaround, since it’s still linked to that phone number. Outside of getting a burner phone number for only public things, you’re pretty much stuck if everyone around you uses it.
If you have Windows, remove your Microsoft login from your OS. You can do that by poking around in the User Accounts part of the Settings. It’ll actually make your computer a little faster!
If you really don’t like MSFT, install Linux. Windows has been ripping off features off Linux for nearly a decade, and Ubuntu (one of the many names of Linux) is unbelievably easy to set up. The only reason I still keep Windows on my computer (besides work expects it) is because many games don’t run perfectly on Linux.
Get ready with that migration to adapt, though. Instead of MS Office, you’ll be using LibreOffice, which has a clunkier interface with a few more features. You won’t have everything cloud-synced unless you set it up yourself. Get ready to websearch a lot of stuff.
I hate to tell you this, but while AAPL is making a stand for more privacy, they still have the keys to it. Also, unlike every other computer company, they run the entire ecosystem, from the hardware up.
While it’s convenient to use Apple, there are several great Linux variations, such as elementary OS. Again, expect to websearch a lot, but even more than the average Windows user because Apple tends to be so easy and so seamless that most Apple users would rather spend $2,000 to a Genius Bar college dropout than do a quick search for what the problem might be.
It will be expensive to migrate, unless you’re willing to jailbreak your device. I must warn you, however, that jailbreaking a device is a bit like open-heart surgery, and you can easily “brick” your device, so be careful.
Amazon has devoted themselves to cornering the market on being the “middleman” for everything. If you have AWS, try to find a new hosting solution.
If you go shopping, I recommend looking for other sites. Bear in mind that you’ll often be paying a 25% markup, but you may be surprised.
Ironically, many of those sites will run on AWS. I recommend WhatRuns or BuiltWith to examine their back-end. Websearch what you don’t understand (which will give you a pretty solid soft skill in web design as well!).
Pay close attention to where those things are sourced. I trust AMZN and its customers more than CCP, and I think you should too.
For me, Google is difficult to remove, for several reasons.
To start with, I recommend No More Google to find what you want. They give you pretty much every popular alternative on most things Google.
One of the most powerful things you can do to anti-Google is to get F-Droid. If you’re old enough to remember, you used to have to download .exe files on Windows to install programs. Most of us don’t remember pre-Google-Play-Store or pre-Apple-App-Store, but in a broad sense they basically do it with .apk files instead (.ipa for Apple). F-Droid gives you more control, and downloading straight from a site like this one is even more tinfoiley.
Bear in mind that software in Unix-likes (which is basically everything but Windows these days) runs on a repository-based system:
- You make a link to a repo.
- Specify what programs you want to download.
- When the software gets updated, it updates your computer.
Even if you’re not tech-savvy and scared to try out F-Droid, at least try to change your DNS. CloudFlare is a good one. Have a second computer/phone handy, though, to websearch how to fix what you broke.
Getting Google off of Android is like trying to get Microsoft off of Windows. While you can do it, it’s an uphill battle. I recommend getting a Librem phone instead.
You’re not really the customer of most FAANGMT. Those organizations make their money off of advertisers collecting information off you. In that sense, you’re the product they sell: a demographic profile of interests and preferences that an advertiser can stick in a spreadsheet to find that precise thing that you’ll drop all your money on.
In that sense, the best thing to do is learn effective money management, especially in saying “no” to your impulses.
The biggest hurdle to this set of decisions will have to do with how you adapt your habits and routines. We’ve now moved into a society where we must consider the political bias of the organizations we’ve trusted, and that often requires more work to shift things around.
The fact is, you’re not going to be completely dark to Big Tech, for several reasons:
- Big Tech has eyes and ears everywhere. They can’t often see “you”, but they can see a you-shaped “shadow profile” and cross-reference information about you.
- Even if you remove all marketing data and go completely dark, they likely can track other organizational information. Bank accounts, for example.
- Um, you still want to live life, right? As much as there are cybersecurity concerns, the only way to really stay safe is to delete all online presence, throw all your tech in buckets of water and run them through a wood chipper, then live in an RV off the grid. This is not conducive to healthy living, especially since we’ve just severed all our social connections with the people who do matter. There’s a reason we gave Big Tech our information, after all!
In short, don’t freak out about it. If you’re reading this, you’re likely unimportant. Staying anonymous is the most critical cybersecurity answer, which requires avoiding doing anything that causes unwanted attention to yourself.
Removing all FAANGMT from your life will, likely, draw unwanted attention. Watching a dot fall off the map will be more perceptible than it slowly fading out. That’s why I keep those profiles open and unconnected to anything, and I recommend you do the same.
June 2022 Update: I’ve made more complete expression of what you can do, as well as what’s been going on, at this page here. I normally wouldn’t do this (because I’m OCD about permanence), but apparently people keep revisiting this archived page, so c’est la vie.