It took a couple of decades for web users to start noticing, but the web has taken on a weirdly creepy vibe lately. It seems your every idle thought manifests itself as an ad banner. This phenomenon, called “targeted advertising,” is based on the searches you do and text you type on the web. You thought you were looking for help on your homework or having a chat with your distant relatives, but privacy-invading algorithms had a different agenda.
These algorithms are becoming more intrusive every day. Some users turn to AdBlock, but that’s a patch over the original problem that’s still there: There’s a computer listening to you, making a note when you seem to be out of mouthwash or display an interest in new socks. If you’re not too concerned with ad networks snooping your data, there’s still the matter of what happens when that data is accidentally breached and leaked to a third, far less scrupulous, party.
It’s not just your search data that’s getting snooped. Thanks to mobile devices in everyone’s pocket, geolocation records where you live, where you work, and where you’ve gone. Google remembers when you searched for an embarrassing medical device; Facebook knows that it’s for your Aunt Tillie. Timestamps mean big corporate data can guess your routine, knowing the exact moment to hit you with a coffee coupon on your way to work.
It’s creepy and intrusive, with the further risk that if this data were to be leaked and misused, it could turn your life into a dystopian nightmare. There are alternatives to having your data tracked, and an increasingly outspoken branch of the web is doing something about it, by promoting online businesses which don’t manhandle your privacy so brutally.
Alternatives to Facebook:
Unfortunately, most of the major social networks are almost as bad as Facebook. But there is a hardy underground of social networks specifically designed to not compromise user privacy:
- Diaspora – An open-source social network which is decentralized, so there’s no corporation looking over your shoulder.
- MeWe – It is directed in part by web privacy advocate Sir Tim Berners-Lee, dedicated to not intruding on your data. It is ad-supported, but the ads are not targeted.
- Minds – Another open-source, decentralized social network, which also features encryption and a non-censorship policy.
- Sociall – A step further in privacy, this social network features blockchain technology and encryption, monetized not by ads but by cryptocurrency.
Alternatives to Google:
The pickings are far less slim here. Many of the search engines that predate Google are still right where they’ve always been, hoping for the tide to turn in their favor.
- HotBot – A search engine dedicated to safe searching, https://www.hotbot.com is a long-standing engine which not only doesn’t track your data, but strives to protect you from third-party threats in the results as well.
- DuckDuckGo – Needs almost no introduction here, but it is the first site people think of for privacy-guarding search engine alternatives. https://duckduckgo.com serves up results from other sites stripped of tracking.
- SearX – A privacy-oriented search engine which is also open source and decentralized. A remarkable feat of “crowd-sourcing” a solution!
- Hot.com – An adult search engine stripped of data tracking. https://hot.com/ provides privacy in one of the use cases where you most don’t want to be tracked.
- YaCy – Another open-source search engine, which uses a decentralized, peer-to-peer approach similar to BitTorrent and blockchain methods.
If the 21st century has taught us anything, it’s that corporations will nibble away at our rights until we do something about them. When the Internet was still a luxury, online privacy wasn’t as much of a concern. But now that the global network has become a necessary utility in our daily lives, it’s crucial that consumers figure out where we want the line drawn, and then not budge from it.