Back in 2018, there was a scandal in the press surrounding a company called Cambridge Analytica and their use of Facebook's rich trove of user data to deliberately manipulate the outcome of "more than 200 elections around the world", according to CA executives. This included the Brexit referrendum, and in fact Steve Bannon leapt from his post as VP of Cambridge Analytica to run Donald Trumps presidential campaign the exact same way. In the end, Cambridge Analytica went bust, and Facebook was fined $5bn for misleading their users in regard to the privacy of their data.
Murmurings about the potential of "Big Data" had been around for a long while, and machine learning algorithms were already commonplace in most big tech companies, as a means to interpret vast data sets and perform subsequent actions such as recommending content, completing search terms, or translation.
Bear in mind, this was five years after the Edward Snowden leaks, and five years before the time of writing, when the world seems to have only just noticed that AI poses grave danger to humanity. If we are honest with ourselves, the writing has been on the wall for a long time. What we now call 'AI' is fundamentally no different to the machine learning algorithms that enabled Cambridge Analytica to effectively brainwash electorates around the world.
In the meantime, everyone has seemingly forgotten about the Snowden leaks, and about Cambridge Analytica, and we've accepted programmatic advertising as an inert facet of our daily lives. Even now, if you Google 'Programmatic Advertising', you'll find swathes of innocent, enthusiastic articles about how great it is for business. Forbes describes it as "one of the most important tools in your company’s arsenal", without a hint of irony in the comparison to weaponry, and gushes at how ads can be served by using "hyper-specific data including the target consumers age, location, career, and specific consumer interests".
Notice how very few of these articles will mention where the data actually comes from. The reason why? They don't know.
We joke about how creepy it is when our phones start advertising products to us that we discussed with a friend a couple of hours earlier. Are we so naïve as to write that off as a coincidence, or have we simply accepted our fate? In reality, smart devices all over our homes, in our cars, in our offices, and in our pockets, are constantly feeding minute, granular data points to each other via data brokers; companies that build their business on buying, selling, and aggregating data about every single one of us. They build profiles on who we are by absorbing and concentrating data from sources that we tend to think of as isolated from one another. Your Smart TV analyses your conversations, while your phone uses Google Maps to track your location, and while Facebook reads your messages, and so on, and so on. These disparate data sources do not remain independent. Somewhere, likely in multiple places, these data is being correlated and aggregated to build an obsessive profile on you, like a creepy, infatuated stalker, potentially with a political agenda.
The crux of the issue was exposed so brazenly by Cambridge Analytica scandal five years ago: Privacy is not about hiding secrets; it is about protecting ourselves from bad actors who wield the most advanced PsyOp tools the world has ever known, and who can influence decisions that we believe to be our own.
How to protect yourself
Short of donning a tin-foil hat and going to live in the woods, it's practically impossible to completely isolate yourself from all vulnerability to data snoopers. However, there are some practical steps that anyone can take to improve things.
This is not all-or-nothing. By even taking a single step to prevent exposure of your personal data, you're already doing 100% more than most people. Furthermore, it's actually not that hard. A little awareness, and a little selectivity about which 'Agree' buttons you click goes a very long way.
To that end, I've spent the last few years distancing myself from platforms such as Google and Facebook. Google is especially nefarious in that they collect so much data from so many different points of our daily lives. They do this not only through our use of Google services, but through advertising, as the largest ad platform in the world. They have recently been ordered by the EU to break up their ad business because they are seen as a monopoly.
Here's a list of recommendations for alternative services that I have personally used, and can vouch for:
Gmail is almost everyone's go-to these days, but there are some great alternatives that are much more privacy conscious. Proton Mail is a popular choice due to their end-to-end encryption. I use Mailbox.org which is rock solid, and has been running since the mid-nineties!
At the very least, uBlock Origin will kill most trackers and give you an ad-free web.
I won't go into VPNs too much, because there's a lot to say, and this is probably a step too far for most people. In a nutshell, VPNs bounce your web traffic through an intermediary which can mask your location not only from websites and apps, but even from your Internet Service Provider.
For the best data privacy, it's recommended to use a VPN that does not log your connections, so that even the VPN provider doesn't know who you are.
The downside to using a VPN is a lack of convenience, and sometimes limited bandwidth, or increased latency.
Sandboxing is a great way to prevent cookies from tracking you around the web. Firefox now comes with containers built-in, meaning that individual sites, or groups of sites, are ignorant about your other online activities. This helps to break the crumbtrail of data that follows you around the web.
There are tons of cloud storage providers out there, with varying degrees of privacy. Google Drive's privacy is basically non-existent and its safe to assume that they are reading your documents. For a more secure alternative, I recommend pCloud or Sync. Both of these services have apps which let you automatically upload your photos and videos from your phone too, so you can effectively ditch Google Photos for backing them up.
I ended up with a self-hosted NextCloud installation, which is not for the faint-hearted, but it works out pretty cheap when you want to store multiple terabytes of data. If you're going down the self-hosted route, PhotoPrism is a fantastic Google Photos alternative.
There are plenty of alternatives to Google maps, with varying degrees of usefulness. Here and Citymapper are decent options. However I do still find myself using Google Maps often, but I do so using Hermit as a sandbox, and without using a Google account.
Yeah, Google owns that too, unless you're an iPhone user. In fact, if you're an iPhone user, you're already doing pretty well in this regard, as they allow you to easily block apps from tracking you. If you're on Android, CalyxOS is a totally de-googled alternative that you can install on a range of off-the-shelf handsets with an automatic installer!
No matter what phone you have, turning off WiFi when you're out and about will help prevent retail stores from tracking your whereabouts and, needless to say, public WiFi is incredibly insecure.