Forgive me if you feel I have become a little obsessive. Nevertheless, the more I am learning about our online lives the more I experience a sense of foreboding. I used to be a great devotee of Google: wonderful, innovative online services and programs that were usually cutting-edge, and oh-so user friendly…and FREE!. However we are learning more and more these days that tech giants giants’ gifts usually tend to be trojan horses. Then there are foreign governments like Russia, China, and North Korea, all of whom seek both to hack-to-steal and hack-to-disrupt.
There is a great little webcomic, Contra Chrome, that explains very well how Google Chrome is one of the linchpins of the Google business model, at the heart of which is one product: us. Our data, information about us collected mostly without our knowledge, is how Google, but also Facebook, Instagram, TikTok et al., make their money: they sell it to the highest bidder. Who is the highest bidder? Now there’s a question… Anyway you can read the webcomic online by clicking here (about 10 minutes of reading) or download it in PDF form here: https://contrachrome.com/ContraChrome_en.pdf
Information gathering might be benign enough now (though, is it?) but that does not mean it will remain so in the future. In fact, recent experience shows that it most certainly will not remain benign.
I would love for there to be Catholic apps, programs and services that could rival the tech giant. Even the privacy good-guys are often tainted by the woke agenda. However, a start must be made somewhere. So below I list the tools I use to reclaim some online privacy. Some have free products (alarm bells for us these days) but that is because their ethos is to enable as many people to access web privacy as possible. The trade off is that the free accounts usually have some restrictions, usually in the size of the mailbox, number of email addresses, and fewer advanced features. Some providers are backed by privacy-advocating NGOs.
Email: I use Proton Mail, which is based in Switzerland, and offers a calendar (free) and a VPN (Virtual Private Network, which helps keep your online activity private from tech giants, hackers and foreign governments) which has a free version with some restrictions. I have taken a low-level paid version, Plus, which allows me full access to the email features as well as to their new Drive (cloud storage) service. (Full disclosure: the link allows for 30-days trial of the Plus features, after which one can revert to the free plan (which still offers encrypted email) if you do not want to pay for the Plus package. If you sign up with this link I get a free month of Plus.) Proton Mail is so good that I am yet to get more than a couple of emails in my Spam folder since I started using it ast summer.
Web Browser: What we use to surf the internet is perhaps our weakest link. I use Vivaldi browser. The company is based in Norway. The browser and all its services are free. It offers free email, a free blogging platform without ads (on which this blog is now sited), inline webpage translator (not based on Google or Bing). It is a wonderful browser, which blocks trackers from companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. How is it all free? The company is based on volunteers around the world, and is owned by its employees. It is funded by donations from individuals and from privacy advocating NGOs and foundations. It also sells Vivaldi-themed merchandise. They have very limited and basic tracking for their own purposes (what country you are in, what type of computer you are using, if you are using the same computer) which allow them to target their development. As yet Vivaldi does not have an app for Apple iOS, though they do for desktop Apple MacOS, and Windows and Android of course.
Other excellent choices are DuckDuckGo and Brave, the former emerging from a privacy-focused search engine. Both are building up big followings among the privacy conscious. Since Vivaldi is not available on iOS, I use DuckDuckGo on there. DuckDuckGo also has a blog which is very informative on improvements and threats in online security and privacy.
VPN: A virtual private network id designed to cloak your presence on the internet in a protective veil. It will disguise your internet address (IP) and encrypt the data you send (like your searches) so that data miners and trackers cannot use it to sell to Amazon, or worse. It also protects you from hackers and the better VPNs come with antivirus and other features that help your security, especially for online shopping or financial transactions. Beware the free or ultra-cheap options. Many have been found to be fronts for surreptitious tracking. Some paid versions have free options that allow you to try their service, or even to continue with some usage restrictions.
I use Surfshark now, which regularly offers discounts for new users and is good value anyway. Based in the British Virgin Islands (which has impressive privacy laws), it is highly regarded and offers an antivirus (and other services) with a paid add-on called One which amounts to an extra £1 or so per month. This includes an alert service that informs you when your email address has been involved in a data breach. You can install it on Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android, and on an unlimited number of devices. It allows new users a 30-day trial period. Again, full disclosure: the link will give me a free month if you use Surfshark for 30 days.
Through a friend I was also able to use NordVPN, based in Panama, which is another highly-rated VPN, a little more expensive but a little more user friendly.
Search Engine: Arguably our weakest point online, search engines are the foundation of the profiles tech giants hold on us all. We have all seen how what we search for on Google will soon result in ads for the same thing appearing anywhere and everywhere. Ditch Google now, and Bing and Yahoo. Arguably the safest search engine now is DuckDuckGo. It is the pretty much the gold standard in search privacy. Brave has a search engine now, too, which is also a privacy powerhouse. Startpage is also a privacy leader, and offers a paid privacy-focused email service which is currently discounted to $2.50/month. Any of these three is all you should be using for your online searches.
Anyway, do read the webcomic which, when combined with other information you can get from the news or online, should be alerting you to the need to start protecting yourself now against threat already present and which will only increase in the future.