Kyle Rankin

Kyle Rankin

President
PGP ID: 0xB9EF770D6EFE360F
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Librem Social
Kyle Rankin

While I have been working for many years to remove all aspects of Google from my personal life, it was only this past week that I replaced the final piece. As of this week I have finally fired Google. It wasn’t easy, and in this post I’ll tell my story of how tightly Google was integrated in my life, the lengths I had to go to remove them, and what took so long.

The Backstory

It’s probably worth starting with how someone like myself who values privacy got so locked into Google to begin with. It all starts with work. I haven’t always worked at Purism, and much of my employment history has been at startups. Where large, old, established companies might be locked into Microsoft’s ecosystem, the startups I worked for opted for Google Apps. Everything from shared calendars, email, file sharing and the rest were handled by Google’s cloud and employees all carried Android phones that tightly integrated into that environment.

For much of my career I was on call and getting notifications from my phone at all hours of the night was part of the job. I got an Android smart watch so that when I got paged, I could just look at my wrist and see whether it was a true emergency without having to take out and unlock my phone. I justified it with the fact that I was already all in at work so what was the harm?

While I wasn’t happy about all of the Google tracking, I also justified it by saying it was mostly compartmentalized for work. It was already required for my job so there wasn’t much of a point in my mind of going to extra lengths to avoid it. I used this same justification when I went on a trip overseas and discovered my existing cellular plan wanted to charge a premium to function internationally. I did some research and found that Project Fi (now called Google Fi) offered an inexpensive cellular plan with international data. I could even subsidize a new phone and still pay less than what I was currently paying for my plan. I was already all in with the Google ecosystem for work, so having them be my cellular provider wasn’t any worse, was it?

Reducing My Dependence

When I was locked in to Google for work, I had less motivation to remove it from my personal life, but once I worked at Purism, they didn’t rely on Google Apps. It finally looked like there was a chance to remove Google from my life. This wasn’t an easy process and had to happen in phases across a number of areas in my digital life.

Web

The first place I removed my dependence on Google was on the web. All of their tracking ultimately goes back to search and the ads they display there, so the first place I fired them was as my search engine. I started by retraining myself to use DuckDuckGo and also replaced the default search engine in my browsers with it so if I typed a search query absentmindedly in the URL bar, it also wouldn’t hit Google.

Of course search is only one of the areas where Google tracks people on the web. So much of the web embeds convenient Google trackers so they can get traffic metrics, integrate with Google accounts, and do all sorts of other things. To rid myself of that tracking I had to go beyond adding an ad blocker like uBlock Origin to my browser, I also had to add the NoScript plugin. NoScript is a browser plugin that allows you to disable all Javascript from the websites you visit. Once you install it you become amazed at just how little of the web works any more without Javascript. You also become amazed at just how much remote Javascript a website depends on (and how many of those remote locations are Google and Facebook). For many sites it does require quite a bit of effort to add enough Javascript to NoScript’s allow list that your normal sites function. As a side benefit though, so many sites depend on Javascript to display slow-loading, resource-intensive, privacy-invading ads, that browsing the web with NoScript is a much faster and more pleasant experience.

Phone

One of the things I was most looking forward to when working at Purism was replacing my Android phone with a Librem 5. The Android phone I had was one I held at arm’s length. After I joined Purism I transitioned it over to an old Gmail account I still had around, but for the most part I tried to use it as little as possible. For instance, I would have loved to add news feed or podcast apps to my phone, but I just didn’t want all of my personal habits tracked to that degree. While it’s true that there alternatives out there that “de-Google” an Android OS, ultimately the ecosystem is still controlled by Google. What I wanted was to be out of the entire ecosystem. While I could have switched to an iPhone, they also integrate with Google, and one of the only things I value more than my privacy, is my freedom.

It may not be a surprise that I was one of the early Librem 5 users. If you watch videos from those early days you’ll realize just how much we have progressed since then! Once I got my Librem 5 I moved my existing SIM over and worked with the rest of the Librem 5 team to identify and resolve any remaining issues that got in the way of it being my daily driver. Of course I still had my Android phone as a backup, just in case.

One thing I didn’t realize until I started using my Librem 5 every day, was just how freeing it was to use a phone that I knew wasn’t tracking me. I actually installed news and podcast apps, and loaded all of my music and personal files onto the phone because I knew it wouldn’t track me. I ultimately even used it as a replacement for my personal laptop.

Watch

Another nice thing about my job at Purism was that I had finally transitioned away from a position that required me to be on call. Now that I was using my Librem 5 as my daily driver, I found less benefit in all of the notifications my Android phone would send to my smart watch. Of course I also realized that this Android Mobile device was yet another link I had to Google and its tracking, and one I wanted to remove.

Beyond that though, I was starting to notice some weird psychological effects smart watch notifications had on me. One day I decided to do an experiment where I would wear an analog watch for a week. It was eye-opening. Only after wearing an analog watch did I realize just how often I would look at my wrist, look away, and realize I had no idea what time it was. There was a part of my brain that had been trained for the dopamine hit of those wrist notifications. Whenever I would post something on social media, I caught myself looking at my analog watch for “like” notifications that weren’t there! It actually took a couple of weeks to retrain my brain not to be dependent on wrist notifications. I was so unnerved by how the smart watch had rewired my brain that I decided to leave it in the drawer.

Maps

Google Maps is an incredibly popular and useful service. I, like many people, relied on it for driving directions whenever I went somewhere new. Of course if you don’t want Google to track you, but you tell Google every place you want to go and travel there with an Android-powered GPS device, you aren’t really accomplishing much. Breaking this dependency was surprisingly difficult at first, until it was easy. While the Librem 5 now has a GPS and a map application, I decided to break my dependence on Google Maps the old-fashioned way: with an actual physical GPS. The key for me was to get a GPS that was completely offline–one that had all maps on the device. An offline GPS not only meant it didn’t track me, but also meant I had navigation even when I took road trips in my camper van to areas with spotty cellular service.

Having a real GPS in my van turned out to be really nice. It was such a relief to know that I could route to a destination and neither Google nor even the company that made this GPS were tracking me. Plus since modern GPSes offer lifetime map updates, I just make a point to update it between big road trips.

Calendar

Even after I switched to my Librem 5, there were still two areas where I found myself relying my Android phone: managing my Google Fi account and Google Calendar. I got in the habit of using this calendar in the Google Apps days as a convenient way to add my son’s school calendar as well as maintain a shared calendar with my wife. Of course if you don’t want Google to track you, giving them access to your personal calendar isn’t a great idea.

My solution was to set up a personal NextCloud instance on a Librem Mini. We discuss NextCloud at length in this post, but it was easy to set up and ultimately it allowed me to have the same kinds of shared calendar and files as you would have with Google Apps, only completely under my control. My wife also moved her calendar over to it and we both use it for shared calendaring. Plus, my Librem 5 tightly integrates with NextCloud. When you first set up a Librem 5 the initial wizard even prompts you to add any NextCloud accounts you may have and it automatically syncs over your calendar!

The Fi-nal Straw: Cellular Service

After going through all of the above steps I actually lived almost-Google-free. It was amazing to live my life without all of that tracking, however there was still this remaining critical piece: cellular service. Since Google Fi was my cellular provider, even though I was using it on my Librem 5, Google still had the ability to track my location as well as my calls, SMS, and data. This was far from ideal, however given how all of the major cellular carriers have been working to track all of their customers’ online traffic so they can monetize it, I wasn’t sure switching to any of them would be much of an improvement.

Fortunately, last year Purism launched its AweSIM cellular service. This service was designed specifically with privacy in mind, with an unlimited cellular plan so we don’t have to track your usage, but more importantly it allows us to act as a privacy proxy between you and the major cellular providers. While it’s true that phone, SMS, and data still go over those cellular networks, only Purism knows who a particular account belongs to. Over the past year I have been helping with AweSIM testing, but only as a secondary test SIM I would swap in from time to time.

The success of the AweSIM service over the past year has meant we have needed to invest in a more scalable back-end infrastructure to help us as we grow. We finished setting up that infrastructure earlier this year and this week we started the process of moving existing AweSIM subscribers over to it. I was actually the first user on the new infrastructure and I was so pleased with what I saw that I decided to port my Google Fi number over to AweSIM. That process completed earlier this week and as part of it I was finally able to close my Google Fi account and fire Google from my last piece of personal data.

An AweSIM Feeling

I don’t think I fully realized how much it weighed on me that I still had Google as such an integral part of my life (and one that allowed so much tracking), until I closed my Google Fi account. Moving over to AweSIM means my cellular data is now as private and protected as the rest of the data on my Librem 5. My Librem 5 has become a privacy haven.

Firing Google was not easy. It took me a number of years, rejecting technologies, adopting new technologies, and changing how I used the web itself. I suppose that’s part of the problem we all face with Big Tech. Tracking has become so pervasive, so integrated into daily life, that sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin. One of Purism’s many goals is to make firing Google easier for everyone and I’m only a test case for the future we are building for everyone. I said earlier that one of the only things I value more than my privacy is my freedom, and now, this week, it feels so nice to have both.

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