How I left Google and how you can too

15. August 2013 Security 11

Those that value their privacy have always been cautious of Google and their services, me included. I’ve never had more than a Gmail account and I think I shared a calendar through Google at one point in time as well. Tracking cookies in my browser were a concern but I only removed them once in a while, I figured if I just stayed away from Google owned and operated websites I’d be fine. Over the years I’ve read and heard more about how Google handles customer data, tracks people and uses all this accumulated data. Most of these techniques I’ve covered in this article. While I felt I took good precautions to keep Google from tracking me I knew more had to be done. Without going into detail on how Google does certain things I’ll walk you through my quest to get Google out of my life. I’ll also refer to articles I’ve written in the past as to not clutter this post. This is an ongoing effort and I have a long way to go but this may help others that want to go Google-free.

Gmail – You can delete your Gmail account, erase whatever contents you have on any of their services and be done in about 10 minutes. This is a bad idea though. You may have set your Gmail account as a recovery address in another service, now you won’t be able to get the password recovery email that was sent. This is just one example. Load up your Gmail either via webmail or in your email client and take your time going through your inbox and folders. Make note of all the people, organizations and companies that you need to notify of your email address change. Once you have done this, start notifying them and check any of your few hundred online accounts (blogs, stores, coupons, apps etc.) to make sure your Gmail is not set as your primary address or your recovery address. If it is then change these now. Do not delete your account just yet as some may send a verification to your Gmail address. Take a few days to do this and make sure you’ve changed and notified everything and everyone that matters. Once that’s done go through your inbox, all folders (including Trash and Deleted Messages) and permanently delete all contents. Disconnect from Gmail on your computer(s), phone, tablet etc. Do not delete the actual account yet.

Other Google services – Check your Google Drive, your calendars and all other services Google offers that you may be using. Migrate all your data to another service and tripple check to make sure it’s all there. Once you make sure, delete all these service contents from your account, you should now have a blank screen in your Gmail, Drive, Calendars etc. Do not forget about Google owned services like Blogger, YouTube, Maps and Google+, they all have to go if you want to be Google-free.

Delete the account(s) – With all your data backed up and/or migrated to other services your Google account and all services connected to it should now be blank. Now it’s time to delete the account. To do this read the instructions here (Google website). I won’t post instructions as Google may change them at some point.

Now that you have severed ties with Google it’s time for a pat on the back. These first steps are huge and unthinkable for a lot of people (Google counts on that) but you did it! Though this is a great begin, there is more work to be done, let’s get to it.

Prevent Google from tracking you
Maps – Stop using Google Maps on your phone. I know Apple’s Maps is not as good but it’s getting better all the time and is a good substitute. If you rely on Google Maps for public transportation info this will be much harder as the substitutes for this are very limited. Check the App Store to see if your city or the public transportation company in your area have developed their own app. I was lucky and found one.
Cookies – Google places cookies on your computer to, amongst other things, track you.  Make sure you block these cookies, a good way to do this is through setting up cookie exceptions in Firefox. I have set up exceptions for every known Google domain.
Analytics – Something you can’t see but it’s everywhere is Google’s Analytics service. This can be blocked by using an add-on to your Safari or Firefox called DoNotTrackMe, more on that also in this article.
Adsense – Advertisements on websites that are served by Google. Block them with the help of the AdBlock Edge add-on for Firefox (AdBlock for Safari). More on Adsense also in this article.
More on how to configure your browser here (Firefox) and here (Safari).

When it comes to Google tracking you through your browser you are now pretty well covered but your computer makes a lot of connections to Google. API’s, RSS feeds, Safe Browsing updates etc. To finish this off and make sure your computer can not make a single connection to Google it’s time to call on Little Snitch, a firewall that monitors outgoing connections. This is a product I highly recommend to any Mac user out there for a few reasons and blocking Big Data collectors like Google is one of them. If you do not have Little Snitch yet please read this article first (30% discount link included), install it if you want and then come back to this article.

To block Google system wide you have to set up global rules, these are rules that are not linked to any specific application but are in effect for every app or process on the computer. Adding a global rule is simple, open the Rules window from the menubar icon:
Rules

Once the Rules window is open look for the “New” button in the top of the window and click it.
New

A new window will open asking you for details, configure it like I’ve done in the screenshot:
NewRule
Create a similar rule but set it for “incoming” to be extra sure if you want but from what I know Google will not connect with you unless an application or process on your system asks for a connection, so blocking outgoing traffic should be enough. Once the rule is added, highlight it in the list to see exactly what is blocked. In the case of “google.com” a long list of specific IP addresses.
RuleDetails
As the rule was set to apply to “Anyone” it doesn’t matter if you make the request through your browser or if it’s a system owned process trying to connect to google.com in the background, with this rule in place it’s simply not happening. Blocking google.com is just one of many domains that need to be blocked. To find out what those domains are click on the Little Snitch menubar icon and select “Show network monitor”. Once it opens type “google” on the search field and the list will be filtered.
MonitorFiltered
If a Google domain shows in red it means Little Snitch has already blocked connection attempts that were made. You can’t stop applications or processes from trying to connect to Google so you will always find it showing in the network monitor. The goal though is to have them all show in red. If you have results in your monitor window like the screenshot (you’ll probably have way more since you are not Google-less yet. I had to disable Little Snitch for a few minutes to get some contents in mine). To get all domains linked to one IP address, just click on them. Here’s what I saw:
Hostnames
As “google.com” is blocked that includes anything that comes before it (subdomains) like maps.google.com or support.google.com but Google has many domains. In this long list it’s “youtube.com” and “youtube-nocookie.com”. Another one shows “google-analytics.com”.
Hostnames1
Click on all the results and build a list of domains then add global rules to block them. After a while, when checking the network monitor you’ll be amazed at how many times Google is contacted without you knowing. If you want to protect your entire network from Google and have a firewall that can do content blocking you can use that instead or alongside of Little Snitch. For the tech-savvy there’s also the hosts file that can be edited and simply re-direct all google traffic requests back to your Mac. As I’ve mentioned before in other articles, security works best in layers. I use Little Snitch, DoNotTrackMe, AdBlock, cookie exceptions and other add-ons like Block.it and Block Site. This computer is Google-free.

Unfortunately there is a huge gap in my defenses where Google can track me, my phone. There are no Little Snitch or add-ons for my iPhone so websites can load ads and other Google served contents, analytics can track me and I’m sure a bunch of the apps I use rely on Google API’s in one way or another. I use the Startpage app to search and do most of my browsing and have no Gmail or other Google services on my phone but while I’m on the road, I am visible to Google. At home I do have the benefit of a content filter firewall so not even my phone or iPad can make connections to Google and the firewall logs confirm these connections are being blocked.

Another thing that is hard to control is other people. To truly be off of Google’s radar I had to stop sending emails to people that use Gmail. Most people have alternate email addresses but for those that don’t it can be hard to explain why I can no longer email them. As to why I no longer send email to Gmail users? Have a look here. According to Google’s legal team “‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’“. Whether you are a Gmail user or not yourself, sending email to a Gmail user will result in your email being scanned/analyzed/monitored. Or as Google’s legal team states “While the non-Gmail Plaintiffs are not bound to Google’s contractual terms, they nonetheless impliedly consent to Google’s practices by virtue of the fact that all users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing.” No thank you. Of course the majority of email providers use automated processing systems to catch malware or phishing and this is ok. Without it email as we know it would be a mess. As for Google, the reasons behind this automated processing and what they do with the data is what I, and many others, do not agree with.

A Google-free computer is possible. It takes a bit of planning and time to set it all up but once that’s done it’s pretty easy to maintain. Smart phones like Android and iPhone are a different story. Android users are screwed by default, sorry. I have been working towards a Google-free life for a while and since I went Google-free I have not missed it at all.

I am doing the same for other organizations and companies that have shady privacy policies, bad history and/or are known to be connected to data collection and monitoring programs like PRISM. Microsoft was the first to go. I canceled and deleted all my accounts and services (MSN Messenger, Skype, hotmail and outlook accounts). My Facebook account still exists but chat is disabled, the app was removed from my phone and all connections are blocked just like I did with Google. I access the account only when I need to and only from my laptop through a proxy or VPN. For now I can not escape the fact I need my Facebook account but it is on it’s way out.

You want your privacy, for whatever reason, and you can have it. I feel great knowing I have a huge chunk of my privacy back and hope this may help you achieve the same. Any feedback or things I may have left out? Leave a comment!


11 thoughts on “How I left Google and how you can too”

  • 1
    alsmith on December 30, 2014 Reply

    ok. I must be stupid.
    This potentially looks like the solution to my problem but:
    is simple, open the Rules window from the menubar icon:
    I can’t find this, please let me know where this is- for idiots- from the program and where to go.

    It’s possibly one of those ‘doh!’ things.

    • 2
      Jay on December 30, 2014 Reply

      That applies to the Little Snitch menubar icon. If Little Snitch is running, by default you have a network monitor icon in your menubar. Clicking that will show the menu I referred to. If you have Little Snitch running but don’t see the menubar icon, open the Little Snitch Configuration application that’s inside your Applications folder.

  • 3
    Pete williams on December 23, 2018 Reply

    Quite surprised when i used the non-deletable ‘notes’ app on my ipad, to receive a email from google, telling me the content of my memo-
    So much for Apple’s privacy statement !

  • 4
    Pete williams on December 30, 2018 Reply

    Found it quite easy-
    use DuckDuck go search engine- (no tracking policy)
    Run a ‘search’ on PC and deleted all ‘Google’ AND ‘Facebook’ content ( they seem to mutually exchange data)
    Then as said, use firewall to block all google/facebook traffic- use GAB for social media.
    If only it was as simple on a Ipad !

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