SK Babu

@babulous

Can we really avoid online tracking?

Privacy comes with tradeoffs

Google’s sneaky attempts to track people even when a phone’s location tracking is switched off, has put the spotlight on online tracking. I’m disappointed with Google as their products have generally enriched my life in many ways, and this one act has undone a lot of that goodwill. The funny thing is my phone’s location tracking was anyway always enabled. The feature helps me track where I myself was on a particular day, or find my way back to places that I once visited. But the relevant fact is I ‘allowed’ Google to track me. If Google were to do that without my permission, that would not be ok.

Nothing to hide?

Of course, they are many who still brush off privacy worries by saying they have nothing to hide. I was one of those till recently, when it struck me that I do have things to hide. And I’m not talking about banking passwords or indiscreet photos. Privacy is something that influences the way I behave. For instance if I’m in front of a mirror, I act in one way if I’m alone, and in a completely different way if there’s someone else in the room. And I really wouldn’t want strangers browsing though my phone’s photo album and seeing my candid shots, like that weird selfie of me flossing my teeth.

Privacy matters. Period.

Powering India’s Internet binge

All this was at the back of my mind when India’s Jio opened registrations for its fiber optic broadband network a few days ago. Jio is famous for its groundbreaking, mobile data revolution in India a couple of years ago. This made the nation the highest mobile data user in the world, consuming over 1 billion GB of data every month, as compared to 200 million GB prior to Jio’s launch. Jio has kept the hype going for its broadband service, with a promise of converting all user homes into Smart Homes via an installation package that takes just one hour to set up. However what worries many Indians is Jio is owned by billionaire, Mukesh Ambani of the Reliance Group. Ambani is supposed to be close to Indian Prime Minister Modi, and the BJP, India’s Hindu majority political party. So the fear is if they sign up for the service, Jio will quietly allow the Indian government to track all the online activities of their customers, listen to their conversations, and use their data against them in some way, like say questioning a businessman about his unaccounted wealth.

Privacy is a universal worry

This is a universal worry as the ‘Indian government’ can be replaced by ‘XYZ government’ and the mined data can be used against citizens in millions of ways, with the Trump election being just a recent high profile example.

So should we really worry about online tracking? And what do we do about it?

Let’s take a step back for a moment.

How safe is our data at the moment?

As some bright spark once put it, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Every thing in the world comes at a cost. And this includes many of the services we take for granted on the internet.

Take Google. If we want to find info about anything, we go to our browser and search or ‘google’ for it, and in a few seconds we have our answer. If we want directions to go somewhere, we turn to Google Maps (Apple Maps doesn’t work in India). To email people, most of us use the ever reliable Gmail. Then there’s Google Photos and Google Calendar and Google Docs. Not to mention the hours, we spend on Google’s YouTube. Besides, if you are using an Android phone (like 95% of Indians), then you are again using Google’s software.

It’s the same with Facebook. The Facebook-owned WhatsApp is India’s most used app with over 200 million monthly users (the total population of US is 327 million just to give an idea of the size of the market), while a lot of Indians also use Facebook and Instagram to connect and share stuff. WhatsApp is not supposed to share data with Facebook but I found them doing it anyway despite my express instructions not to do so.

If you ask an Indian why Google and Facebook can afford to give us these services, they’ll casually say those companies make money off advertising.

But to attract eyes to ads, you need data. Advertisers want to know as much as possible about the person they are targeting. A simple example is if a car manufacturer knows your age, your gender, your education, your family status, and your salary, he’ll know what kind of a car you are most likely to be interested in. He’ll accordingly advertise a model of that type to you, and be more likely to catch your eye, and make a sale. In short, the more data a company has on its customers, the more an advertiser will pay for it.

So for the Googles and Facebooks to make money off advertising, they need more data on you. The money they get paid for this data by advertisers, is what allows them to offer ‘free’ services.

Now if you are truly worried about the Googles and Facebooks sharing your data, you should stop using their services, and opt for alternative services. Just like people need food to live, companies need profit to survive. So there’s no way these companies are not going to share your data.

Choosing between a rock and several hard places

In the current scenario, it would seem that every choice comes with trade-offs you may not like. Here are a few that I can think of.

1) Go anonymous

This is the traditional go-to method of anyone who wishes to avoid being tracked online. To hide their location, they use a Virtual Private Network or VPN. As using a VPN involves using someone’s server, there is usually a cost involved. But if your need is only occasional, you can find VPNs that give limited access in return for viewing ads. The limits can be either time or data.

Setting up VPNs used to once be a complicated. But these days, it’s so easy that even a layman can set up and use it a few moments. For instance, Spotify is not available in India. So if I want to use the free version of Spotify in India, I need to use a VPN app that will make it seem that I’m accessing Spotify from the US.

Here’s how I go about it. On my iPhone, I have a VPN service as part of my data manager app, which is predictably called ‘My Data Manager.’ (it’s owned by a Chinese company and doesn’t seen to have a limit on how much data you use but I’ve noticed that if you use more data, you get to see more ads). When you install the app, it asks if you want to enable VPN, and you say ok (you can disable it from within the settings tab of the app). An icon then shows up on the task bar, to show the VPN is active. I then fire up the Spotify app, log in (if you are signing up with Spotify, make sure you state you are based in US), choose my music, and tap play. It works for me, so I’m guessing the app makes me appear to be based in the US.

These days, I don’t anymore go through the circus of enabling the VPN and playing Spotify. That’s because I can now legally listen to almost any music on Amazon Music (free with my Amazon Prime subscription) or Jio Music (free with my Jio mobile plan).

The major drawback with using VPNs is the good ones come at a cost. Secondly, the people who run the VPNs claim they don’t have access to our data. I take that claim with a large pinch of salt as everyone has an angle, and I’m not too sure all these guys are saints. Also, theoretically speaking, if you go online with the VPN enabled, no one should be able to track you. But this is an ongoing cat and mouse game. Data is precious, and those who want it are always going to be trying to find ways to get around VPNs. Good luck is all I can say.

2) Go the safe data way

An example of this is the Apple way. Apple claims that it doesn’t collect and sell the data of its customer. They say they can afford to do this as they make their money by charging a higher price for all their products.

The problem is Apple only gives you a piddly 5GB of data for free on iCloud, which includes backups of all your devices, your photos, as well as your email. Buying more storage can quickly add up to a lot of moolah. Also not everyone is a fan of Apple devices and their ‘walled garden’ approach, which includes non-connectivity with USB pendrives.

The other thing is just using Apple hardware alone won’t solve the issue. The apps on your iPhone could be collecting your data. For instance, the default search engine on the iPhone’s Safari browser is Google. However Apple gives you an option to change it to Bing, Yahoo or Duck Duck Go. The last is the recommended choice as it makes money by selling the key words you search for, and not your data. That won’t turn the owners of ‘Duck Duck Go’ into billionaires. But it seems they are happy. My guess is it probably covers their costs, and a bit extra.

You can change the default search engine from Google

The other loophole on Apple devices is that you can be tracked even if you turn off your location tracking on your phone. In fact, that’s the current controversy with Google. It seems turning off location tracking in Google only makes it stop showing your location within the app. The moment you use any other Google service, Google can figure out exactly where you are.

So to be completely safe, you need to avoid all services from data collecting entities like Google and Facebook, including their associate companies. Like it might be a good idea to quit the Facebook owned WhatsApp and move to independent or open source messaging services like Signal or Telegram.

In India, price is a problem as far as Apple is concerned. Apple products are priced higher in India than anywhere else in the world. A basic 64G model iPhone X costs ₹90,000 ($1288). The reason for this is India imposes high taxes on imported electronics as against locally made stuff. There are other issues like the fact that Apple Maps is non-existent in India so most people are stuck with Google Maps. In fact, Apple just has a 2% share of the Indian market. Obviously, the Apple way will not work, at least not in India.

3) Pay to avoid data sharing

Take email. Let’s say you get rid of Gmail and switch to a paid vendor. In India, this would be the state run BSNL email service which offers privacy at ₹1/day for a princely 1GB inbox. Or upgrade to 10GB for ₹999/year.

So why isn’t everyone jumping at the offer? Well, BSNL’s service can’t do half the stuff that Gmail can. Indian government organisations also have a reputation for being corrupt and inefficient. So I have my doubts about the security of data on government systems, and its ability to keep downtime to a minimum.

Besides Gmail is but one of Google’s many widely used products. I don’t even want to think about finding replacements for Google Photos, Google Maps, and all the rest of the other Google apps that I use.

4) Look for alternate vendors

Other unpaid options to Google still exist. So if you are really worried about Gmail reading your emails, you can switch to Microsoft or Yahoo who both offer decent email solutions. But the ‘free lunch’ arguments holds. Microsoft and Yahoo will eventually have to figure out some way to make money from you, and it’s quite possible that selling your data may be part of their solution.

5) Go with the devil you know

Fair use of my data Here’s the way I see it. Google offers a pack of excellent services which is unmatched by any competitor. Their services have enriched my life in many ways. Google Maps does this everytime I need to find a place. I have also stuck with Google as my search engine and let it save my search history. I find it helpful to have a search history in case I need something I once found through search. Or take Gmail. I didn’t feel good when I first got to know that Google was reading my personal emails. What made it bearable was the fact that it most probably was a bot and not a real human. Then one day, Google read my ticket booking email and sent me an alert saying my flight was leaving at 5am, and not 5pm as I had mistakenly assumed. That saved me good money as it was an international flight. Ever since I have viewed Google as an AI assistant. But Google can do all this for me only because I give them access to my data.

All this is why I’m willing to pay Google’s price for their service, which is my data. My only condition is they don’t misuse it. Now there’s no guarantee that they won’t do this. But I have been a Google user for many years now, and I haven’t yet seen them misuse my data, apart from pesky targeted ads that I usually block with an ad blocker. But like I said, the recent location sharing controversy has shaken my faith in Google.

Misuse of data In contrast to Google, I really distrust Facebook as they have absolutely no qualms in stealing our data. I have had some disturbing experiences with the platform and avoid using it as far as possible. I haven’t yet left the platform as it’s the only way to connect to some friends who refuse to use any other platform out of habit. However, though I’m technically still on Facebook, I try my best to make sure they can’t track me (for details, see my post about this). Sadly, I haven’t had the same success with WhatsApp which is owned by Facebook. Ideally, I would switch to Telegram or Signal. But I can’t get anyone else in India to join me, as everyone here is on WhatsApp. So it looks like I’m stuck with WhatsApp for now, and hence Facebook.

Letting Jio into homes in India Jio disrupted India’s mobile data market with data usage going up by 500%, while data prices went down 97% in one year (2016–17). This has changed the way Indians use mobile data. Earlier I used to have 1GB/month plan that cost ₹350 ($5). I would hardly turn on data on my phone, saving the precious stuff for an emergency. Now I have 1.5Gb/day plan for 84 days that cost the same ₹350 ($5), which means I use it without a care when I’m away from a wifi. Going from a miserable ‘per month’ plan to a virtually unlimited ‘per day’ plan, has changed my life. Full time navigation and streaming music in my car, YouTube on an overnight train journey, instant access to all my online files at all times, and so on and on…

Though Jio’s Ambani connection worries me, it’s not like the other networks in India are angels. If anything, they were doing the opposite. Before Jio’s entry, the other mobile networks in India had formed an unofficial cartel to keep data prices high artificially. A look at the profits of Airtel (India’s largest mobile network) shows that they were making a humungous profit of $1.47 billion or ₹10,251 crore in 2015–16 (before Jio’s entry). In 2017–18 (after Jio’s entry), the same Airtel made a loss of ₹675 crore or $97 million.

Sure, Jio may also rip me off at some point of time in the future. But as of now, I believe they give the best value for my money. Jio’s push into broadband could transform the way we use the net at home, and possibly make Smart Homes a reality in India.

In that sense, a business will always be a business. They will always be trying to make money from me. Some will do it in ways that I can live with, while others won’t. So if I were to have to choose, I would choose the devil I know. And that’s why I avoid Facebook, stick with Google, and have signed up for Jio’s broadband service.

Conclusion

It may still be possible to avoid online tracking but there will be tradeoffs. As for me, I’m sticking with my combination of an iPhone using Google services for now. Let me explain why, with the help of a simple example.

A few days ago, my kid complained that the four drawers in her dressing table had got mixed up and were falling out. She just couldn’t figure out the right combination of drawer and slot. I looked at the dressing table and noticed that each drawer had a different flower pattern on it.

Tracking the right order in which the dressing table drawers were fitted

That’s when I recalled taking a photo of her cousin playing the keyboard a couple of years ago in the same room. I was sure the dressing table was in the shot, and as it was new at the time, I assumed the drawers would be in the right order. Accordingly, I went to Google Photos, and searched for keyboard. The photo popped up a second later, and in no time, the drawers were back in the right order. Problem solved in an instant, thanks to Google Photos (Apple’s Photos also could probably do this but I would have to be paying for storage to have that my entire photo library of thousands of pictures up in iCloud).

If I quit using Google services, I would not be able to enjoy these little conveniences. They may small but they have become an intrinsic part of my life over the last few years (which probably was Google’s intent). All said and done, as of now, I feel sharing my data with Google is a fair trade off for the many services they give me. But I reserve the right to change my mind.

However as the old saying goes, one man’s meat is another’s poison.

You will have choose your own poison.

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