Fed up with Big Tech? Find out how to get your privacy back, explore alternatives to Google

·10 min read

Years ago, we searched the web, bought new gadgets, and typed in our email addresses without much thought. As far as accounts went, "Hey if it's free, sign me up," we thought.

Fast forward to now, and you can't go online or turn on the news without hearing about the control Big Tech has on our lives – and the growing resentment around it.

We’re not the only ones noticing. Probably due to government initiatives, tech companies are making changes to address these concerns. You can now password protect the page that reveals all your Google searches and other activity.

Here’s how to set it up:

  • If you are signed in to your Google account, navigate to the Activity settings.

  • On the left-hand pane, click on Activity controls.

  • At the bottom of the Web & App Activity block, click on Manage my activity.

  • Next to Google protects your privacy and security, click on Manage My Activity verification.

If you own an iPhone, it’s easier than ever to see what info the apps you use are collecting and block that data from being shared. Tap or click for five iPhone security settings everyone should know about.

Americans may be finally waking up to the fact that when a product is free, they are in fact, the product.

Big Tech: Do you trust it?

Nearly 60% of poll respondents fear their smartphones are spying on them and say they’ve experienced the phenomenon when they’re having a conversation about something and then saw an ad online for that exact product.
Nearly 60% of poll respondents fear their smartphones are spying on them and say they’ve experienced the phenomenon when they’re having a conversation about something and then saw an ad online for that exact product.

I hear from callers to my national radio show and readers from my website and newsletters all the time who say they’re tired of Big Tech companies, their power, and their control. It got me wondering, how widespread is this feeling? I put together a poll and sent it out to subscribers of my free newsletters, and 6,351 people responded.

Here’s a telling stat for you: 86% say they no longer trust Big Tech companies. As a country, we realize how much power and influence they have on our everyday lives.

When’s the last time you got through a day without picking up your iPhone or Android smartphone? What about your Apple or Microsoft computer? Shopping on Amazon or scrolling through posts on Facebook?

The survey found that 76% of those who responded use Google daily, followed by Microsoft (60%), Apple (49%), and Facebook (45%). Over 40% shop on Amazon or use Amazon owned-products like the Echo daily; 89% are active shoppers on Amazon.com.

Only a mere 1.34%, or 85 of those polled say they don’t interact with at least one of those companies every day.

Who is watching and listening?

If you have a smart speaker at home, I bet you have wondered, “Is it listening to me all the time?” It’s one of the reasons I unplugged my Amazon Echo and stuck it in the garage.

I asked those polled if they think smart speakers listen to what you say all of the time instead of only when you use the “wake” words. A whopping 82.73% said “all the time.”

Amazon, Apple and Google will tell you their artificial intelligence assistants only listen for the wake words, like “Alexa,” “Siri” and “Hey, Google.” One issue, though, is how often smart speakers are accidentally triggered.

A 2020 study from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany showed a combined 1,000 phrases could trigger Alexa (“election,” “a letter”), Google Home (“OK, cool,” “Ok, you know”), Siri (“hey Jerry,” “hey, seriously”) and Microsoft’s Cortana (“Montana,” “frittata”).

Worried your smart assistant hears too much? Tap or click to stop all your smart devices from listening to you and recording what you say. A good rule of thumb is to keep smart speakers out of bedrooms and bathrooms.

Nearly 60% of poll respondents fear their smartphones are spying on them and say they’ve experienced the phenomenon when they’re having a conversation about something and then saw an ad online for that exact product.

Before you jump to thinking your phone’s microphone is recording what you say, there could be other reasons for the coincidence. Maybe you searched for something similar before, or someone in your house did. Your home’s IP address is used to target you with ads, after all.

To see the rest of the survey’s findings, check out the full results on my website.

What about Google alternatives?

Here’s one of the most conclusive answers from my survey: 92% of respondents think Google knows too much information about their personal lives.

Think about it. Many of us use Google for our email, video meetings, document storage, web browser and much more. Tap or click here to see everything Google knows about you with one quick search.

You have great alternatives you want to step outside the Google sphere.

How to search like Google

DuckDuckGo

Unlike Google, DuckDuckGo’s entire gimmick is its lack of user tracking, as well as a company policy of no targeted ads or relevant results based on your search history.

On the one hand, this means your results will be less tailored to your specific needs and interests. On the other hand, these organic results may help you find things that the Google algorithm might otherwise bury.

StartPage

StartPage calls itself “the world’s most private search engine.” The Netherlands-based company recognizes that when it comes to search, it’s hard to beat Google. That’s why they use the power of Google without passing along user tracking.

StartPage pays Google for the use of its search algorithm but strips out the tracking and advertising that usually comes along with it. You get a Google-like experience, along with the promise that your data will never be stored, tracked, or sold.

Kiddle

If you have little ones at home, consider Kiddle. It’s not affiliated with Google, but Google Safe Search powers it.

How to browse like Chrome

The default options for Macs and PCs, Safari and Edge, are solid choices — and use up much less of your computer’s resources than Chrome. If you’re looking for different features, Firefox and Tor are solid contenders.

Mozilla Firefox

Firefox predates Chrome — but this browser is no dinosaur. Firefox’s active developer community frequently releases new updates and add-ons. Firefox automatically blocks third-party cookies by default and automatically notifies you if you visit a website that’s been hit by a data breach.

You’ll also find many of the same add-ons that make Chrome so robust. Firefox uses less CPU than Chrome typically does and is capable of loading some websites faster to boot.

Tor browser

Designed as an “encrypted browser,” Tor uses special coding to keep your browsing habits secret from prying eyes and advertisers. It’s so reliable, in fact, that people living in authoritarian states have used it to break through censorship by installing the browser on USB drives.

Tor routes your internet traffic through anonymous servers in different parts of the world, making it difficult for ad trackers, search engines and even governments to know you are and what you’re up to. Just don’t expect every website out there to play nice with your browser.

How to message like Gmail

Gmail keeps track of things like buying habits, which can make switching to a new mail service seem worthwhile. These alternatives are easy to pick up and master and lack many of the privacy drawbacks found in Google’s mail client.

Email getting you down? Tap or click for five inbox hacks, including ways to banish tracking and junk mail.

Mailfence

Mailfence is an encrypted email service with a variety of unique security features. Users have the ability to add digital signatures to their messages, which guarantees that your emails are from you to your recipients.

Mailfence also offers a suite of document tools like G Suite’s Docs and Sheets, along with a calendar and access to third-party mail services so you can create email addresses using your own domain. It’s a great option for small business owners and ordinary users alike.

Protonmail

Protonmail is a popular option for users seeking absolute privacy. The company is based in Switzerland, a nation famous for its privacy standards.

Unlike most email services, Protonmail doesn’t require any personal info to set up your account. If anyone were hypothetically able to compromise your info, they wouldn’t be able to glean any personal information other than what you’re sending in messages.

There’s a limited free version and a more robust paid version, and you can use the service for your website’s domain.

Signal

Signal is an independent non-profit that aims to create a totally secure, encrypted cross-platform messaging app. It’s got state-of-the-art end-to-end encryption. Signal promises no ads and no trackers, ever.

Add that on top of its price, free, and you can start to see why Signal is the go-to messaging app for the privacy-minded. You can get Signal on everything from Windows to macOS to Linux as well as iOS and Android.

How to watch videos without YouTube

YouTube is another tool Google uses to build a digital ad profile for its users. As good as it would be to move to an alternative, none of the most popular options really match the quality of what YouTube has to offer.

That’s why these alternatives either work hand-in-hand with YouTube itself or have features that provide something YouTube does not.

Hooktube

Designed for faster load times and less impact on your browser, you can use Hooktube to search and browse videos just like you would on YouTube itself without ever visiting the Google-owned site.

You can watch YouTube links that other people send you by simply changing “youtube.com” in the URL to “hooktube.com.”

We’d recommend visiting the site this way most of the time. Hooktube’s Avoid the “Trending videos” section – it can sometimes promote questionable content like conspiracy theories and fake news because content selection is based on shares rather than curation.

Vimeo

Vimeo is a longtime competitor to YouTube, and despite never surpassing it, it still holds its own. It boasts 280 million viewers per month, along with a much lighter server load that makes uploading videos easier. If you have long-form videos or self-made movies you want to share, it’s a perfect place to host them.

Vimeo allows for higher-quality videos than YouTube does, too. Independent filmmakers even use the platform to host movies for online distribution.

How to navigate without Google Maps

Google Maps is so big that many third-party mapping apps actually pull map data from it. That said, if you’re using an alternative that doesn’t share your data with Google, they aren’t going to see your movement and activity.

What you use instead depends on which operating system you use.

Apple Maps

When Apple and Google Maps split up, it was a major controversy. Apple Maps comes standard on every iOS device and it now has more robust features than ever.

Apple Maps emphasizes user privacy by not tracking your searches beyond your device. DuckDuckGo actually utilizes Apple Maps for its own mapping program. You’ll have access to Apple Maps by default if you’re using an iPhone or Mac, but Android and PC users can access Apple Maps via DuckDuckGo.

HERE WeGo

A lightweight and powerful mapping client, HERE WeGo users give it high marks for its commitment to privacy and speed.

This application offers versions for nearly every platform, including iOS, Android, PC and Mac. HERE WeGo loads directions and maps a bit quicker than Google’s option but won’t run quite as fast as Apple Maps on Mac systems.

Google may dominate the web, but it’s far from your only option. You can switch to some of these alternatives and rest easy, knowing all your internet and privacy needs are covered.

Need a hand with a pesky printer, slow internet or online business? Post your tech questions for concrete answers you can trust from me and other tech pros. Visit my Q&A Forum and get tech help now.

Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Online privacy: How to stop Big Tech from getting too much information