We live in a world where we are being looked at all the time. I say “looked at” because that kind of sounds less harsh compared to “tracked and surveilled”. The phones and smart devices that we ourselves make sure are with us all the time are always listening to us – even when we are no talking to them. Google and Apple, even Instagram and Tiktok, know where you are all the time even when you are not even using their apps. Google has access to all your emails and can shut you out of your life just because. You cannot escape the Facebook mafia. If you stop using Facebook, they catch you with Instagram. If you don’t use Instagram they will catch you with Whatsapp. If you somehow even escape that. Facebook now owns “Giphy” the gif search engine that is built in your phone keyboard. Hell, let’s say you don’t even use that they can track you with their integrations in every single website and app that you are using. They have a profile of you even if you never made it and it is more detailed than it would have been if you have provided that data yourself.
All conveniences come at a tradeoff. You have to give up something to get something in return. We as a society have, for most cases out of ignorance and in many cases willingly, traded our privacy for the benefits that the technologies provide. We allow apps, websites, and devices to constantly gather data about us which they can then use to profile us and subsequently sell more products to us using targeted advertising. And if you think that you, an adult, are impervious to advertising and are not influenced by it one bit then you, my friend, are wrong. Billions of dollars would not have been spent on advertising every year if you, the target, was not affected by it. With the advent of sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Google as a whole which know every single thing about you they know with much high precision which ad to show you and when. Technology has become so very advanced that it can now show you the ad for a product which you yourself don’t know that you need.
If you really don’t give it much thought, it doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. Sure they are collecting data on us but what’s the harm in that. Targeted advertising, theoretically, should be beneficial to us considering it takes away the pain of finding a product ourselves by showing as ads of products we are more likely to buy. Sure we might be persuaded to buy something that we didn’t really need but that has been done by pushy, persistent salespeople for ages. If you really think like this, and only like this, then the benefits of using tech if well worth the loss of privacy which even happens behind the scenes.
I, for one, am somewhat of a privacy-conscious person. I am not saying that I do not use new tech or tools that have the capability of tracking. I still use Gmail and a smartphone as well as many such apps or sites that I know for a fact are tracking me. But every such instance has been a decision on my part and not blind submission.
My first stance is to avoid using anything that can track me and invade my privacy. I do not use any social media platform directly at all. Any and all posts that you see on my Social Media come from a syndication app that allows me to not have social media apps on my phone. I do not install unnecessary apps and regularly delete apps that I don’t see myself using frequently.
Then come the things I have to use because the disruption of quality of life by not using them is much higher than the threshold that I have set for privacy. I will have to use Gmail, Whatsapp, and Amazon. I will have to visit other sites that use all sorts of tracking scripts. For these items, I have measures that ensure that I let as little tracking data go out as I can. It starts with only using a privacy-centric, ad-blocking browser on all platforms and goes to extent of having actual physical hardware whose sole purpose is to block tracking, ads, and malicious scripts from even reaching my network. I have gone to the extent of even self-hosting my own DNS to the amount of data any third party DNS provider can theoretically capture. I have, by doing this, found a balance between being able to enjoy the convenience that comes with using tech and knowing that I have not entirely given up on my privacy. The ability to completely De-Google, De-Amazon or De-Facebook myself would have been nice but this is a satisfactory second best.
I am listing down all the things/actions that I personally follow broken down into basic and advanced on the basis of how easy they are to setup. Everyone should be doing everything mentioned in the Basic section at the very least and as much as possible from the advanced section.
- Use adblockers – You will immediately see how much your life will get better as soon as you install the adblocker on your browser. Not only will you be saved from all the ads and annoying popups but your webpages will start loading much faster. Below you can see how much ad content is being pushed to you by the sites that you use daily. I recommend uBlock Origin which you can download here – https://github.com/gorhill/uBlock#installation. Download the version specific to your browser.
- Use a better browser – Chrome is good. Really good. But it is still a product of Google which they own and control. If you want the best features of Chrome without the privacy issues you can use Brave(https://brave.com/). I use brave on all my devices – laptops and phones as the default browser. It has inbuilt ad and tracker blocking and since it is built on the same open-source framework as Chrome you still get the features you love. Having said this Brave has its minor issues as well so if you can use Firefox with the adblocker plugin.
- Avoid smart devices if possible – Alexa is always listening to you. Always. And she is sending everything that she hears to Amazon servers. Google Home is doing the same. So is Siri. If you can live without them, that’s the best-case scenario. If you don’t want to be left out of the whole smart house times use them wisely. Keep your Alexa and Google homes off at all times and turn on only when you want to use them. That’s what I do with my Amazon Echo.
- Use paid/ad-free services wherever possible – We use a lot of apps and services which use ads as their source of income to offer their service for free. Most of them also have a paid ad-free version which might offer you a little extra functionality as well. I am a big proponent of paying for an app or service if it really adds value to my life. It also supports smaller developers financially without having to rely on shady techniques like ads and data gathering. For me, no ads is the biggest perk. The biggest example for me for this is Youtube. I have been paying for Youtube premium for a very long time. Even though I have weaned my daughter off her Youtube habit there was a time when we used to watch youtube for at least a couple of hours every day. I did not want to expose her, or myself as a matter of fact, to any advertising for as long as it was possible so I upgraded to Youtube premium. In the same spirit, there are a bunch of apps that I have paid for even though they would have functioned exactly the same if I had gone for the free version. More on this in a future post.
- Don’t install anything you don’t need – I am not sure if you have noticed but every single business out there is trying to get you to install their app. Everyone from my local grocer to my pediatrician now has an app. And they want that to be on my phone. The reason they are pushing for you to install these apps is so that they can gather more data about you and use the apps to send you targeted notifications. You do not need to install every app just because it prompted you to install it. Even if you have to install an app because the web version was not satisfactory you now have the option of removing immediately after use. Looking at how fast and cheap internet connections we have with us all the time you can now install and remove apps on demand.
- Don’t click on random links – This is just plain common sense. No there are no scandalous photos or videos of your favorite celebrities behind that shady looking link. No one is giving you a BMW worth 1Cr just for clicking a link and sharing a photo. High-quality copies of movies that have not even released cannot be downloaded from torrent sites. Use a little common sense.
- Do not connect to random free wifis – There are no free things in this world. At least not anymore.
- Keep your phones, laptops, software, and apps up to date.
Use Ad-blocking DNS – Although my first preference would have been network-wide adblocking using a PiHole (next point) this is still a good option for people who don’t want to mess with hardware and their router. By changing a few, simple settings on your device you can start blocking ads and trackers at a DNS level. Sure your adblocker could already be blocking those but it is limited to the browser only. It cannot block ads and trackers embedded in the apps and games that you have installed on your phone. Blocking trackers using a privacy-centric DNS takes care of that. The setup process is fairly easy and you should be running in a couple on minutes. I personally recommend Adguard DNS (https://adguard.com/en/adguard-dns/overview.html). I have tried in the past and considering that the configuration is easy and no hardware or servers are needed it is a good way to start. I recommend that you configure your router to use Adguard as the upstream DNS (all instructions are present in the link shared) so that you don’t have to make changes in each device individually. Else you always have the option of setting it up on the particular device. In case you have young kids at home you can also go for the “Family Protection” option which takes care of adult content and other unsavory sites apart from the usual ads and tracker.
Dedicated hardware /server for adblocking (PiHole) – This is something that I personally use, am a big fan of, and would recommend to you if can have this. PiHole (and a similar offering from Adguard called Adguard Home) are dedicated Softwares/servers that you can host yourself without relying on any third party or having to pay a recurring fee and get full control over what you want to block or access. In terms of functionality, they work on the same lines as Adblocking DNS servers with the only difference being you have full control over your blocklists and which kind of upstream servers you want to choose. The only downside of this approach is that since you have to host it yourself and it has to be up and running all the time, you effectively need to have a “server”. Now, “server” is a really scary word. Businesses have servers. What business do I have with a server? I don’t even know where to get a server? Does Amazon sell servers? Do not worry! A server is basically any computer that runs any service that we require and “serves” the content and access to that service. It doesn’t even need to be running all the time if you don’t need to access its service all the time. For the purpose of adblocking, you don’t really need a high-end machine. Any old laptop that you might have lying around would do the trick. Although I would recommend the approach I personally follow. Running Pi Hole on a Raspberry Pi. A Raspberry Pi (which I will refer to as a Pi from now on) is a small single board, extremely cheap but reliable computer. The Zero version of the Pi, which is more than enough to handle PiHole and a bunch of other applications is the size of a credit card and costs less than Rs. 1000. It is a fullfledged computer with 512MB RAM, a 1 GHz processor, and Wifi built on the board itself. You just need a Pi Zero, a memory card(the small one what you put in your phone) as the storage and a micro USB power cable and you can set it once and forget it. It will run 24×7 for you without you ever needing to worry about maintenance or anything. Since it is so small it can be hidden away anywhere in the house and consumes a lot less energy than an old laptop would have.
Pi’s are available in many variants from this smallest Zero version to the latest Pi 4 which has 8GB RAM on board and is capable of running a full-fledged desktop operating systems that can replace any contemporary laptop. I, at the time of writing, am running 3 Pis at my home. One Pi Zero is used as a Pi-hole server, another Pi Zero is used as a retro gaming console (think Mario, Bomber Man, Contra, etc) and a Pi 4 is used to run my NAS/Backup/Media Server. I can go on and on about this but let’s stay on the topic. The crux of the matter is for less than Rs 2000 you can have a dedicated server running in your home which will block ads and trackers on all devices connected to the network. Below are the stats from my Pihole.
I will not go into the details of the process of setting up a Pi-hole on a Pi-zero because there are already thousands of such posts and articles out there. I did a quick search and found out that most of them still assume you to be a little more hands-on. The following are the simplest, most easy to follow posts that I could find which I would recommend you use when you try to set up your PiHole.
How to set up a Pi Zero – https://desertbot.io/blog/headless-pi-zero-w-wifi-setup-windows
How to install Pi Hole – https://pi-hole.net/
This all might have started to seem a bit too much to you. And, to be honest, it is. What you need to understand, and more importantly accept, that there are businesses out there who are investing billions of dollars and hiring the most talented people from across the world to make sure that they can track and profile you better and in the end serve you an ad. You cannot escape from them entirely until you choose to live the life of a hermit (even then someone else might tag you in their Facebook photo and now FB has your data) but you can take measures to minimize it.
Parting Words – You do not need to necessarily do any of the things mentioned above. If your life is running normally with no impact at all because of all the tracking, profiling, and persuasions by ads then you can choose to continue to live like this. If you assume that all the data being collected on you is just going to be used to make services more customized to you, to give you a better experience then you should continue to live your lives in this bliss. But if you give 0.01% probability that the data collected related to you with or without your consent can be used against you and what is “seemingly harmless” tailored advertising today could turn into tailored propaganda tomorrow you need to start taking your privacy seriously. They say “In today’s age data is gold”. Don’t give it away for free.
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I have helped many startups in building their products and I would be happy to have a chat with you about your idea. Catch me on twitter at @akhilrex