Owning Your Own Data

Marc on 2021-04-05

After almost a decade of having a Google account, I'm moving. I'm retaking control of my data. This change of attitude wasn't even spurred on by a news article or getting swept up in some public outcry, it came from just looking at my own account.

Search My Activity?

A few weeks ago I was trying to track down a blog post I'd read as I wanted to reference it in an article I was working on. I'd failed to find it in my bookmarks and eventually turned to trawling through my web history in Chrome. After a few fruitless searches I was presented with a popup: Would you like to search in My Activity?

I wasn't familiar with what "My Activity" was so I figured it might be a good last ditch effort to find the article. I agreed and was redirected to a page containing all my activity, across all my devices, across all of Google's services and beyond. All of which was neatly categorised and searchable by location, time, device, service; even interest[^1].

After scrolling and clicking around for a few minutes it suddenly dawned on me, what am I even looking at? Here I was, being presented with what was effectively every individual moment of my online life. Curious what song I was listening to at 17:57 on October 6^th 2020? It's right there. What app did I launch at 12:25 on January 17^th 2021? Here you go. How often did I search for X? Interact with Y? It was all there.

[^1]: I.e if I searched for a new wallpaper on Unsplash, that was categorised as images. Listening to music on Spotify? That was categorised under music despite the fact these aren't even Google services.

I didn't even find the article I was after.

I'd already set up various automatic deletion policies on my Google account as somewhat of a piecemeal attempt at privacy some time ago and basically forgotten about them. But to see all my data, my entire digital life in such a manner...that was unsettling to say the least. I remember physically shuddering just skimming through it; and that's only the data accessible to me, who knows what else could be getting stored.

Migration

The reality of the situation made very apparent, I decided enough was enough. As such, over the past few weeks I've been slowly (yet still faster than I expected) migrating all my siloed away data back to me, to be under my own control.

This has primarily been carried out by pulling what I can from Google Takeout and migrating as many of the apps/services I use to FOSS and/or privacy-respecting alternatives:

The real backbone of this system is Syncthing, an application that has quickly become indispensable to me. Syncthing is a free, open-source, self-hosted file sync manager - an excellent Google Drive alternative. The entire setup process is effectively as easy as specifying what folders you want to sync, what devices you want to sync them to, and you're basically done. As such I've been using Syncthing as a replacement for the cross-device syncing I would have previously had with Google. It's a strange thing to get excited about but the setup process of Syncthing is literally so fast and easy I've already switched a few of the other backup strategies I had to it.

Owning Your Data

Owning your own data is truly liberating. If you don't want to track some data, don't. If you want better insight into some aspect of your life, then do. It's as simple as that. No opaque algorithms or "Just for you" recommendations. Your data, how you like it, processed (or unprocessed) however you want.

Besides the solice that comes from being back in control, I've also been surprised at just how little friction has been felt as a result of moving. It didn't take long to shift from one inbox to another; to migrate notes/tasks to local alternatives; to really start to wonder why I'd felt so reliant on proprietary services before.

So take a step back and consider, what are you really giving away using these services? Do you really want so much of your life tracked and recorded? How much could you gain by taking back control?