Why and how I am de-clouding
Based on my obstinate rejection of certain pervasive technologies one might think I am a sort of modern day Luddite. Although I don't adopt new technologies on the sole basis of them being new, I do adopt them, often as a so-called early adopter. My rejection happens on a political level and it would be the same for other types of technologies. It just happens that digital technologies are so incredibly powerful. In this article I will try to explain my choices.
I didn't come to the conclusions I present here nor to the decisions I made as a response to them overnight. But using products and services from technology giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon—which I will refer to rather interchangeably as "the cloud"—became increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually I had to start taking measures to rid myself of them.
What I will describe here and in articles to follow is my personal quest to de-cloud myself, so to speak. As I said, I am not a Luddite, and I wanted to find equivalent, that is to say, modern and convenient alternatives, not go back to the pre-internet era. A follow up ambition sprang when I started to formulate and search for answers to questions such as: Who can and who cannot do the same? How scalable would my solutions turn out to be? The tech giants claim if we don't agree with their terms we can opt-out, but how easy is it to actually do it?
Even though most people don't have a clear idea what it is, the cloud is nowadays—and has been for a while—taken for granted. It is, as I mentioned above, pervasive. Without it your smartphone it, for the most part, just a phone.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the cloud as an apolitical piece of technology. Except that there is no such thing as apolitical technology. Every device or software out there is made up of an immeasurable number of decisions, ranging from the prosaically technical to the complexly strategic. And each one of them has an effect on people's daily lives. Some decisions may—by conscious deliberation or unconscious bias—exclude groups of people from a service, while others might cause outright harm. If you are curious about this discussion I encourage you to read, by Mike Monteiro, where he argues for the creation of a code of conduct for designers fashioned on the molds of that of medical doctors'.
Truth be told, in practice—though absolutely not technically—you can think of the cloud as you would think of a remote computer to which your device connects. For example, when you want to get from one place to another you probably open a map app and enter the starting and ending point. The app connects to the cloud—again just imagine another computer—via the internet and downloads the images for the map and—presumably—the pre-calculated route.
Now, here are the crucial questions: to which cloud does it connect? And what happens to the data your device sends after it gets inevitably stored there? We already know the answer to the first question: technology giants. The fact that the second question has no clear answer is, to me, the most troublesome aspect.
This leads me to the first—and more pragmatic—reason why I decided to move away from the cloud: my concern with (my personal) privacy. Everyone who advocates for online privacy has heard the maxim "I have nothing to hide" ostensibly from the same people who close the door when they go to the bathroom and draw the curtains at night. It is easier to reason about privacy with physical items, but we really should have the same standards in the digital realm. In fact, even stricter there, since the stakes are higher, due to its inherent outreach.
Another rationale I have heard many times was "but I already sold my soul to Google." Lurking underneath this statement is a sense of helplessness fomented by the technology companies themselves, obviously to their own benefit. But this reasoning doesn't survive a closer inspection. First, information gets old. In order for them to get a proper profile on you they need accurate and up-to-date information. Second, privacy is not a binary concept, it has many shades. You don't run about the streets of New York naked while shouting out loud your social security number, address and passwords to all your e-mail accounts just because you use Google services. You can give away some privacy while keeping other aspects of your life to yourself. And this is the crux of the matter: we should be able to choose what we share and with whom. But with the tech giants you are expected to give up either all or nothing—that is, not use the service at all. By using their products and services we must either consciously accept this or try to fool ourselves about what is happening to our personal data. In reality, there is nothing preventing you from using Google Drive while giving up on Gmail. You can move gradually towards more privacy the same way someone might become a vegetarian before becoming a vegan after first avoiding red meat.
The second and more idealistic reason for leaving big tech was concerning the effects of privacy invading technology in the society at large. Other people have explained more eloquently than I could what those consequences are. I can particularly recommend, by Shoshana Zuboff for a thorough—and troubling—examination of the matter. But I can give my personal account on the subject.
Particularly important to me was a realization that those companies have way too much power. If, in a capitalist world, we vote with our wallets, in a surveillance capitalist world we vote with our personal data. Each one of us who uses those services is validating them, and that was something I could not do anymore. Think of it as the digital version of becoming a vegan: the butchery will not end because you did so, but you do it nonetheless, maybe in the hopes that others will follow suit, but at least for your own peace of mind. (By the way, I am neither a vegetarian nor a vegan, and I find it hard to give up on meat, I am choosing my battles; maybe one day.)
To get a grasp of how much power the tech giants have visit, which helps us see how much money one man—Jeff Bezos, of Amazon.com—has. No one should have so much power, especially someone who has not been democratically elected. And here is where the one vote per dollar metaphor evaporates: when we buy something from Amazon we are not—at least consciously—voting for Jeff Bezos as the president of the world. But that is what it ends up amounting to. And, although I wish to see a systemic change that would prevent this kind of unbalance to even exist, I cannot anymore stomach the reality. I suspect a similar process is what turns people into vegetarians or vegans.
But enough with the philosophical babbling, let us now get a bit more practical. Next I will tell a little about my choices following the conclusions I described above. Notice that this is not a tutorial, but an introduction of the alternatives that worked for me, they might not work for other people. I think it's still worth going through them.
My first step away from the cloud was with e-mail. (Actually it was when I deleted my Facebook account, which I think you also should, but there isn't any meaningful replacement for that.) I switched from Gmail toand —one for private messages, the other to give away to untrusted parties. I can personally recommend both, but regular folks looking for a Gmail replacement should consider Protonmail, as it is a lot more mature and feature rich. For example, it offers a tool for importing content from Gmail to make the migration easier. It is also more expensive, which is why I chose Tutanota for personal communication. Both offer a free version, but I wanted my own domain, which is a paid feature. On both options messages between the same providers are encrypted by default. And on both you can choose to send an encrypted message to another provider (for example, Gmail), although it is a bit more cumbersome.
If you don't know what it is, you can think of the difference between an encrypted and an unencrypted message as being, in a way, similar to that between a letter and a postcard. An envelope is hardly state-of-the-art encryption, but it is a strong statement. If you received, say, a letter from your healthcare provider with sensitive personal information you would be very upset if you noticed that the envelope had been violated. A postcard, on the other hand, carries the message on its outer surface. When you send someone a postcard you (should) make sure not to write anything private. When you send email with Gmail you should think of it as a postcard. What kind of things do you write on your e-mails?
As an added benefit, both Tutanota and Protonmail include an encrypted calendar. I personally don't use either of them, and I will explain why in paragraphs to come.
Anyway, with e-mail it was as easy as creating a new account on a couple of services. It is something I recommend everyone to do immediately. Really, you don't lose anything by doing that and you can still use your Google account for things like Photos, Docs or Drive, and you take one step towards more privacy.
Speaking of Google Drive, here is where things might start to get expensive or complicated—or both. One reason I have recommended Protonmail is that they are working hard to actually become a full fledged alternative to Google. If you decide to go with the paid version you will soon be able to have their equivalent of Google Drive. When I made my decision about storage I chose. You can either download the code and host it yourself or find a provider. I did the latter because I didn't want to worry about maintenance. There I have photos, videos and other types of files. It doesn't look fancy and smooth as Google Drive or Dropbox, but I know I am in control of the data. As I mentioned this can get expensive, because you are paying for storage space. I certainly prefer to pay with money rather than with privacy.
Calendar and contacts
I also use Nextcloud for calendar because both me and my wife have access to it and it is easy to share our events with each other. I made it more convenient by also synchronizing my contacts. So when I add a new contact on my iPhone, instead of being saved into iCloud, it will end up in my private Nextcloud. I can share calendar and contacts between devices just like the native ones; or even in addition to them.
One of the most difficult steps in this project was deleting my WhatsApp account. I lost contact with some people and with others contact became less frequent. Fortunately I have been able to stay in touch with my family and closest friends via two complementary solutions.
The preferred one is, to which I was able to lure many friends over the stunt. I am worried that one (evil) man can have such an enormous influence in our society, but that day he did me a favor.
Kind of. It so happened that many people migrated to Telegram, or at least started using it alongside WhatsApp. Especially in Brazil, where I have many friends, and where this app was already very popular. There arenot to use Telegram. But my main problem with WhatsApp is Mark Zuckerberg (really, their business model, but that derives from the fact that he is despicable). So, in that sense, I'm fine using an app with poor encryption—or actually , which should be a scandal, especially on an app that sells itself as a private tool.
In the meantime I continue my mission to get everyone to switch to Signal. Ironically WhatsApp's encryption is supposed to be stronger than that of Telegram, and the same as that of Signal—it was implemented by the founder of this latter. I say "supposedly" because the source code is closed and no one can verify this claim. At the same time, all its metadata—that is, who you talk to, when, how often—is monitored by Meta, its parent company.
It's not over
As the title of this article suggests, I haven't completely de-clouded myself. I still have documents on Google Drive, my Gmail account is still open (though with little activity), I am still on LinkedIn—unfortunately a hard one—I still use Apple products and services—you might have noticed its conspicuous absence in the beginning of the article—and so on.
There are still two parts of this project that I did not cover here: home automation (a.k.a. smart home, IoT, etc.) and music (that is media streaming). These are more complicated topics and with such far reaching consequences that they deserve to be dealt with separately. These were also the source of most frustration because they don't scale easily and therefore don't meet my broader societal, political requirements. The technology is just not there yet.
I hope my little experiment also bears fruits for others. Feel free to get in touch with me to ask for more specifics or just to share your own experience. Stay safe, stay secure, stay private.