How To Claw Back Privacy Under Google's New Policy

The step-by-step guide to using Google's best offerings, but spreading your online eggs into more than just one big basket out in Mountain View, California.

Google has a new universal privacy policy taking effect March 1. You probably received an email or notification (or six) about it already. The policy mostly simplifies the rules of what Google can do with your data across its many, many services, but it also makes one thing really clear: Either you’re cool with Google, or you aren’t.

If you like the idea of advertising being finely tailored to your tastes and interests, of Google services trying to guess what they can help you with, then you’re all set. But if you’re either specifically concerned about Google having some rather particular details about you, or more generally about having all your personal data eggs in one basket, you definitely have alternatives. And they’re not the kind of alternatives that require a beard, a cabin, and jars filled with liquids of disconcerting provenance.

You can opt out of Google’s customized advertising, but you can’t opt out of Google using something you search for to change what you see on YouTube, or the ads you see in Gmail. But you can opt out, in the most basic way, by using different services to get what you need from the web. Here’s a skeptic’s guide to gaining back some privacy while continuing to be connected.

Get Your Data Out Of Google

Your first stop on any check-up or checkout of Google is your Google Dashboard. It’s where Google shows you everything you’ve directly given to them for use with their various tools. You’ll see most of everything Google is holding on its servers: your Android device details, Chrome syncing data, Gmail particulars, and so on. Some offer links to download or delete their data right on this page, but most only offer “manage” links that just take you to the service settings. Now that you know what you’ve got, head to the Data Liberation Front, maintained by Google’s own engineers. Here you’ll see everything you can grab out of Google products, for importing into other services, and perhaps as a pre-acccount-deletion maneuver.

Not every Google service can fully export your Google account data. But it’s worth noting that you can often transfer your Google data to your own Google Apps account--that is, a Google-powered account managed through your own web domain. Google’s upcoming one-for-all policy switch doesn’t apply to Google Apps installations, and Google Apps accounts offer more robust data migration and backup offerings. Among them are the ability fully back up your account, through services like Backupify.

Switch To Other Services

The closest thing to Google’s wide, varied, extremely free web offerings is in Microsoft’s Windows Live/Bing ecosystem, or perhaps Yahoo’s slightly disjointed web world. But the point isn’t to get boxed in by a different all-inclusive firm, is it? You want to spread your data around, so here’s a shortlist of the best semi-independent services that match up to Google. Consider using a secure but easy password manager, like previously mentioned LastPass, to ease the transition.

  • Search: Duck Duck Go -- The name is weird, but the search results are clean and convenient, and the search terms you enter aren’t collected, compared, or shared. The relevance of the results themselves are, frankly, not bad, compared to Google, and there’s definitely less in-house Google -related promotion. Bonus: Geeks can get into the keyboard commands and instant search shortcuts.

  • Email: Yahoo Mail -- There is nothing to match Gmail’s features, capabilities, and accessibility. But Gmail has, at the least, inspired the other web-based mail systems to catch up. Yahoo Mail looks and feels pretty good on the web, and if it’s not quite up to your standards, you can use it with a desktop or mobile email application of your choice and forget its interface entirely.

  • Google Voice: A few different apps -- Google Voice is a unique offering of a free number, free SMS, one-number-many-phones routing, and voicemail transcription. Line2 is, at least for iPhone and Android owners, the best comprehensive alternative, offering a dedicated number, free SMS, and actual voice-over-IP calls that don’t use your minutes, but it is roughly $10 per month. Phonebooth offers similar services, plus voicemail transcription, but it’s also not free.

  • Calendars: Windows Live Calendar -- Technically Windows Live Hotmail Calendar (pretty name, we know), but other than the unwieldy Microsoft branding, it’s a handy, web-based app that can easily import Google Calendar .ics files and sync to other applications through feeds or Exchange protocols. Plus, it shows you the weather for the upcoming week, which is pretty neat.

  • Work-type documents: Zoho suite -- What Zoho lacks in Google account tie-ins, it makes up for in rich, deep features. Zoho’s word processing and spreadsheet documents are much more comparable to traditional desktop applications, and the suite offers a variety of tools for project planning, team communication, discussion and voting, and pretty much everything you’d need to work with others online.

Remember: Google (And Others) Only Take What You Put Out There

What freaks people out most about Google’s all-app sharing policy isn’t the idea that Google knows you’re searching out fashion boutiques. It’s the idea that Google knows you’re working on a side business you’re trying to hide from the boss, or that you’re looking into infertility treatments. Google says in its upcoming policy that it won’t tailor advertising or otherwise act on information in “sensitive categories,” like “those based on race, religion, sexual orientation or health.” Still, it’s an endless game, guessing what Google may and may not be monitoring, whether through algorithms or data given to the advertising staff.

So no matter which services you’re using, store your sensitive documents on your computer, and maybe in a backup service that has a clear privacy policy. Use anonymity tools like Tor to look up truly sensitive material. And take some advice that’s always applicable: Don’t send email that you would be ashamed to have read by anyone other than the intended recipient.

[Image provided by Shutterstock; Thumbnail: Flickr user Bill Rhodes]

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