Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking about privacy and data security on the internet. I am not a big fan of Google but much of my work is relying on a lot of their services. Recently I decided to step out of the Google ecosystem and with this blog post I want to show you, that you can do that too. I went on the hunt after some Google alternatives.
Feeding Google with data
Once part of the Google ecosystem, unencrypted plain date hovers over their servers. Several articles in the past have revealed that Google has repeatedly worked with the FBI and the NSA on user data. Although I've been using Google products for a long time (especially Gmail and Drive), that's no reason to completely ignore my privacy on the Internet. Even now, I can still take the first step and tear myself away from the Google ecosystem. In this blog post, I want to show what Google alternatives there are, and how they integrate into my current workflow.
Gmail and its 1.5 billion active users
One of the most well-known and most-used products of Google is (besides their search engine of course) Gmail. The email service has 1.5 billion active users. I started my email adventure with Outlook. More specifically with Hotmail, which integrated into Outlook in 2012. One year later, people got aware that Outlook, like other email providers, reads emails and stores them unencrypted on their servers. Apart from hat Outlook have their headquarters and thus their servers in the US. And they are known to have no strict privacy policies. If you want to have more security regarding emails with Outlook, you have to pay for it (Office 365).
Do not get me wrong, I also like to spend money on it if my data security is more granted to me. But before I give my money to a group like Microsoft, I prefer to look for an alternative that really values my privacy.
Getting rid of Chrome
In my early years, I did not care that my data is not safe in a multi-trillion dollar US corporation. That's why I set up a Gmail address as well. If we anticipate the year 2019, I am not so happy with my decision at the time. I try step by step to get rid of the individual Google products. One page that was and still is very helpful to me is Nomoregoogle. The project by Pieter Levels is an overview of the individual services, with suggestions for Google alternatives.
Through this page, I became aware of Firefox again. I'm a Chrome Poweruser, I use a lot of extensions and add-ons. Chrome always made me feel faster than any other browser. So I did not care about the competition, nor test any new browsers. However, when I downloaded the latest version of Firefox, I was extremely surprised. The user interface was clean and the design looked appealing. I found myself thinking that the UI actually looked better than Chrome's.
Switching to Firefox
However, before I finally got the hang of it, I had to be sure that the individual extensions that I use in Chrome are also available as addons in Firefox. And indeed, I found every single one in the Firefox addon store (but still searching for an Workona alternative). At the time, I felt a bit bad, as I've always believed that Chrome is by far the best browser, and everyone else is miles away in terms of features. In fact, I lived under a rock. Firefox is a great browser that does a lot better than Google Chrome, first and foremost Privacy. It took a few hours with Firefox and it already felt like I had never used another browser. Other alternatives for Google Chrome would include Opera, Brave or Vivaldi.
Can you replace Google Search?
Next up was Google Search on my list. Google tracks every single search query and then also each of your next steps. Within a short time, Google knows in this way, what you were looking for, what search results you clicked on and finally what you did on this page. It's sometimes scary that Google is more likely to know about our user behavior than we think. WIRED wrote an exciting article about how we are getting tracked by Google. There are already some search engines on the market that do not track a single click from you.
Unfortunately, many do not provide numerous and accurate results that Google often provides. Startpage.com was the best solution in my opinion. The company is based in the Netherlands and has servers in the US as well as in the EU. Startpage will provide you with all search results you would have received with Google. However, with the small and subtle difference that not a single click is getting tracked. Once you do a search through Startpage, Google has no chance to continue to follow you online.
Google alternatives when it comes to search
Probably the best-known alternative to Google in terms of security is DuckDuckGo. Maybe you wonder now why I did not resort to this search. DuckDuckGo gets a lot of media attention and it turns out that they are safer than Google but not really better. Why? DuckDuckGo is based in America, has its servers there and is thus subject to the Patriot Act (as well as Google). In addition, they host on Amazon servers, which is not known to be the best solution for data security. For more information on this, I recommend the following blog post "I found this flaw in DuckDuckGo". So if you want to search Google privately and securely, you should rely on the service of Startpage.
Update 13.2.2020: Back in November 2019 Startpage got bought by System1, a company that focuses on targeted advertising. There hasn't been any statement about whether Startpage will still focus on their privacy-first approach. Therefore I would suggest using services like Qwant or Ecosia, which are both good private search engines.
How I tried to replace Gmail, and somehow succeeded
My email activities happen, as mentioned earlier, in Gmail. Accordingly, I also use a Gmail address. Google has long ago admitted that for advertising purposes, they monitored users' email activity. Since the 2017/18, Google stopped doing this espionage work. Third-party email clients, such as Spark, Edison, Newton, etc. can still read along with your emails. A report by the Wallstreet Journal revealed this fact (App developers sifting through your gmail). One company that was mentioned in the media over and over again was Return Path. It could be confirmed that the employees of this company have read over 8,000 emails of their users. Sadly, with services like Spark, user data is collected and eventually sold.
If you google for named email clients and add "privacy issues" to your search you will be overwhelmed with numerous results. If you want to securely write and manage emails, you should use the stock email apps of the respective operating systems. But what if I do not like the UX? Or do I need functions that many other email clients have implemented? At the time of writing this blog post, there is no real answer. Unless you take certain circumstances to complete.
Is this the safest email service? Introducing ProtonMail
Free but limited
However, the free version of the email provider has certain disadvantages. The memory amounts to 500 MB and 150 emails a day can be sent maximum. The paid subscriptions start at 5 € per month or 48 € per year. But you get 5 GB of memory, 1000 emails a day, 200 folders/labels, 1 custom domain, and normal support.
If you need more storage you can top it up for 1 € per month or 9 € per year per GB. Likewise, if you want to use more custom domains, you can buy them for $ 2 a month or $ 18 a year per domain. A memory of 500 MB is not much and will not be enough for most users. So someone who writes a little more emails than the average a day, already access the paid subscription. 5 GB are available for this. Compared to the 15 GB that everyone gets free at Gmail. In return, ProtonMail offers some security provisions. On the one hand, this includes the already mentioned end-to-end encryption.
Free does not mean free
In addition, ProtonMail has no access to your encrypted user data. The company uses proven and trusted algorithms for these encryptions. The hard drives used by ProtonMail are also fully encrypted and stored in secure data centers. So far so good. ProtonMail offers everything you are looking for when it comes to security in your emails. You realize how often the saying "If the product is free, you are the product" is true. Every time I discover a new email client that advertises, among other things, being free, the alarm bells ring. Because in most cases you pay with your personal data. So if you put a lot of emphasis on data security, you should be ready to pay for it. Because often it is smaller companies that try to fight against corporations like Google and to provide more security on the Internet.
Why I still have to use Gmail
With a new email via ProtonMail, however, I personally face another problem. I currently use Superhuman as my email client. Superhuman currently supports only Gmail and Gsuite accounts. Of course, I could use my new Custom Email from ProtonMail inside Gmail. Because over each Gmail account you can call up and send other emails. That happens, for whatever reason, with the deprecated service POP3. In addition, retrieving and sending emails via POP3 within Gmail does not really work in my favor. It is extremely slow and the emails are also retrieved irregularly. This situation "forced" me into a workflow that I appreciate more and more recently. My main smartphone is an Android Phone. S
Superhuman Mobile is currently only available on iOS. So I am not tempted to constantly look at my emails on my smartphone. I focus much more on my work and know, once I'm at home, I can handle all my emails on my MacBook with Superhuman. Of course, I use Gmail on my Android Phone and still have access to emails in emergencies on my smartphone. My basic plan is currently hosting my private emails via ProtonMail. In order to use my email client, I have to integrate these email addresses into existing Google accounts. As soon as Superhuman stops concentrating on Google and Gsuite accounts, but also offers the possibility to create IMAP accounts, there is no reason for me to use Gmail for my email traffic any more. Which also separates me from this Google service.
Alternatives for Google Docs & Google Sheets
I've never used Google Docs or Google Sheets great. Therefore, it was not difficult for me to find alternatives. If you're a hardcore Google Sheets user looking for an alternative, check out Airtable. Partly spreadsheets and partly databases, Airtable acts as an excellent tool to easily organize anything, with anyone, anywhere. Among other things, I use Airtable as a database for the content that I share in my weekly newsletter, Creativerly. So I always have the opportunity to check if I want to share something which I have posted before. If you want to know about my weekly newsletter you can check out my blog post about it. But now let's get back to some Google alternatives.
As for Google Docs, I prefer Notion. I was a year-long Evernote user. Until I finally switched to Notion a year ago. For me, Notion is an all-in-one workspace where everything comes together. I do not use it primarily as a simple notes app, as well as I've used Evernote. Rather, it serves as a project management tool to give structure to my projects. Of these notes can be a part. For quick and intuitive writing, however, Workflowy is my favorite. At the beginning of 2019, I started Bullet Journaling. Workflowy is based on a bulleting system, which makes it my absolute favorite for quick notes. So for my use-case Airtable and Notion are the perfect Google Alternatives, when it comes to Docs and Sheets.
Moving on to Cloud storage
As a cloud service, I use Dropbox. Google Drive was never my first choice as the Mac app "Backup & Sync" was extremely slow and took up a lot of my RAM. When it comes to privacy and security also Dropbox was already in the criticism. Still, Dropbox cloud storage is one of the safest. Over the past week, I wondered if I should not switch to an even safer option. The reason for this is the fact that I prefer the data and data centers of such services to be located in Europe, or even in my home country. Nextcloud provides an interesting alternative in this respect. Nextcloud provides free software that allows data to be stored on its own server.
It is a perfect alternative to commercial products such as Google Drive, Dropbox or OneDrive. By installing Nextcloud on a private server or webspace (which, happens at no extra cost), users are always in control of their data. When Frank Karlitschek announced Nextcloud as a fork of ownCloud on June 2, 2016, he aimed to make users independent of service providers on the Internet. We all know that many vendors market their users commercially. A certain privacy or data security is not given. Nextcloud enables completely own data sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Informationstechnikzentrum Bund (Germany), as well as authorities from France, Sweden, and the Netherlands are enthusiastic about this data sovereignty, so they use Nextcloud for the file exchange.
So I found an alternative for every single Google product I have used. Only to Gmail I still hold on. However, I am in good spirits that Superhuman will soon enable the use of other email services as well. As soon as this is possible, I can also turn my back on Gmail.
Just because I no longer use Google services does not mean that my data is protected on the Internet. However, I have made a huge step in the right direction. Let me know which Google alternatives you are using.