Yesterday, Google’s algorithm freaked and creeped me out like never before. I booked a flight ticket using my personal gmail account, but received an automated notification on my work email (via G-suite) saying the flight time has been added to my work calendar. There’s no reason why the two accounts should be linked.
This was perhaps the final strike for me.
I’ve used Gmail for well over a decade now, and while its simplicity and usability is one of the best out there, one has to draw the line somewhere.
This is where I draw the line.
I haven’t linked my work and personal accounts in any way whatsoever. So I find it baffling to see how my flight booking can show up on my work email account. This means one of two things, really:
- Google knows that the two accounts relate to me – perhaps based on my name, date of birth, devices used, etc.
- Google assumes with some probability p that the two accounts relate to me – perhaps based on my name, date of birth, devices used, etc.
If it’s the first case, it’s unsurprising, but creepy.
If it’s the latter, then it’s a little surprising, very creepy, and indeed, extremely worrying.
There was no notification on my personal account saying that the flight now shows up on my work calendar.
Hypothetically, if for whatever reason, Google’s algorithm ends up “matching” my account with someone else’s account – based on my name, date of birth, etc – however miniscule the probability of such a match happening may be, my information would be shared with some random account without my knowledge.
The seriousness of such a breach of privacy is obvious.
But this particular case of my work and private email accounts being “matched” is also, a serious breach of trust and privacy as far as I’m concerned.
Like I said though, this was the final strike. It wasn’t the first one by a mile.
Other annoyances that paved the way
There were are other annoyances, too.
You’re never really signed out
When you sign out of your gmail account, Google still keeps you signed in to your “Google account”, thereby tracking and collecting data on every single thing you browse. My browsing is rather boring and dull (mostly dry enthusiastic academic articles), but even so, why should Google track it?
This means I need to sign out twice almost every time to genuinely be “signed out”. But of course, using Chrome means that I’m never really signed out, even when I am.
It’s stuff like this which makes the ‘fiction’ part of the science-fiction film ‘The Circle‘ seem like anything but fictional. Much of it is just real. And creepy.
Have you tried getting hold of google / Alphabet’s Data Protection Officer’s details? By law (GDPR, UK DPA), companies must provide contact information for their Data Protection Officer (DPO). I’m not sure if it’s a legal requirement to provide this information easily, but Google certainly doesn’t make it easy.
And seeing that this is a service built with simplicity in mind, I find it hard to believe that the difficulty of getting their DPO’s information is unintentional.
On another note, if you try to change your privacy settings on Chrome – for e.g., reducing tracking, deleting cookies, etc – you’re constantly reminded about “how much you’ll lose” by disabling tracking.
A clever use of loss aversion (from Behavioural Science), but with an arguably unethical intent and approach.
Google knows more about me than me
You’ve probably heard that google knows more about you than you. When I first heard this, I just thought it was funny. I knew it was true, but didn’t think much of / into it.
But the more I think about it, the more creepy I find it.
It’s no doubt challenging to not be known by Google. For instance, I thought I’d switch to using Apple Maps instead of Google Maps, but that won’t quite happen. And that’s largely because Apple Maps is just really far behind Google Maps.
My partner and I rely on reviews of restaurants etc shown on Google Maps far more than any other review system.
So while I could use Apple Maps for navigation, I’ll almost certainly still end up using Google Maps to run a sanity check on unknown restaurants / hotels / businesses.
While I can’t stop using Google products / services definitively, I can certainly reduce my usage overall by stopping to use some services completely.
Here’s what I’m switching to (and honestly think you should consider switching to, too).
Exploring Alternatives To G…
A bit of duckduckgoing around, and I found a few alternatives to the G.
Search with DuckDuckGo
I’ve now made DuckDuckGo my default search engine. It’s like Google, but without all the creepy tracking. Granted, it’s not quite as fast as Google, and some of its results aren’t as relevant as those suggested by Google. But, for the most part, it’s a pretty good search engine.
Now instead of googling around for stuff, I’m going to proudly duck around.
Browsing with Firefox
I was about to choose Safari instead of Chrome, but found that for whatever reason, DuckDuckGo was a lot slower on Safari vis-a-vis Chrome. After testing it on Firefox and seeing that it’s about as fast as on Chrome, the switch to Firefox was a no brainer.
One other factor was Safari’s UI as far as URLs go – you never see the full URL on Safari; just the “root” URL, which I find really annoying.
Fundamentally though, my choice of Firefox was largely driven by privacy.
Similar to the ethos of DuckDuckGo, Firefox seems to champion privacy as far as browsers go.
Addons like their Facebook Container prevent Facebook from following me around the internet. Firefox itself doesn’t track any of my browsing activity – which is how it should be.
Email with ProtonMail
Gmail’s creepy feature was of course the final strike – so getting a new mail client was imperative.
Based in Switzerland (a huge plus in terms of trust already), I like to think of ProtonMail as the Apple Inc of mail.
Like Apple, they encrypt all messages to a level where even they can’t access the content.
I must admit that the UI of ProtonMail is nowhere near as good as Gmail. But today for me, privacy and non-creepiness trumps UI.
ProtonMail’s UI feels a little like the early 2010s, maybe mid 2010s version of Gmail. It’s clunky, unforgiving, and very ‘literal’. The design isn’t ‘fluid’, and their storage limitations are laughable.
But since I’ve been paying for Gsuite anyway, I don’t mind paying for ProtonMail in lieu of Gsuite.
At least I’ll have my privacy.
File storage with iCloud
I did use Google Drive a lot, and must admit its “office suite” including Google Docs in particular, is great. Sadly, thanks to their (lack of) ethics, I’ll have to stick with Microsoft’s Word, or perhaps look at LibreOffice.
As far as file storage goes, I’ll be sticking with iCloud.
This is fundamentally because Apple has consistently championed privacy as a human right, and continues champion it.
Privacy aside, iCloud automatically backs up all my data, and it’s accessible on all my Apple devices albeit slower than Google Drive.
The switch to non-Google products will take some time. Extracting and then deleting my data from Google services is going to be a right pain in the backside.
But I’m hoping that this is a once and for all project.
I now join the growing movement of folks who value privacy and believe it to be a fundamental human right.
So in the (‘accidental’) words of Irena Andrassy, the EU ambassador to UK, I say to Big G on Gexit Day…
“Thank you, goodbye, and good riddance.”