Between you and me

Let’s talk about some privacy issues.

Rebooting is a biweekly newsletter about how we can use technology to take better care of ourselves.

A quick update: After publishing this newsletter, I spoke with the team at Weather Line about the app’s privacy policy. I’ve added some details to that section below.

If I’m any good at getting my work done, it’s thanks to the systems I’ve put into place to stop ADHD from pushing me head-first into a pit of obligations I’ve neglected. If not for years of therapy and attempts at self-awareness, I’d still be drowning under piles of commitments as I count down the days until someone  peeks inside my Big Dumb Brain and sees through my sham of being passably capable. That fear may not have been grounded in any sort of reality, but it did serve as a good driving force for getting my act together.

Not every fear is so easily conquered. I still can’t watch horror movies involving dolls, driving in the rain causes my heart rate to spike, and I risk falling into a panic if I don’t wash my hands at least six times per hour. Mostly this is fine, and just means that when I went out with friends I’d blame my frequent restroom trips on a small bladder. It beat trying to explain that if I don’t wash my hands, the germs I’m carrying will literally infect everything around me and cause irreparable harm.

Until March, my therapist and I thought that fear was pretty outlandish. That’s less convincing as headlines and tweets all remind us that we need to regularly wash our hands to keep those around us safe. When you’ve spent years untangling the wires in your brain that OCD has bundled up tight, there’s no comfort to be found in a global catastrophe that shows even your most irrational fears might come true. I’m dealing with that, but it’s far from the only thing on my list of  fears the pandemic has forced me to confront.

Prying eyes

Like many of you, I’ve been spending a lot more time online the past several months. Whether it’s anxiously reading the latest news, checking-in with friends on Instagram, or just browsing the web for another side project to fill the void, I’ve left a pretty gnarly trail of crumbs across the web this year. In the past, I’ve justified giving up chunks of personal information by telling myself that losing a bit of privacy was worth whatever utility the services offered. That changed after I read this piece by Alex Ross about the hidden costs of streaming music. The whole thing is worth a read, but this bit is what set me on a journey to a more privacy-focused digital life:

According to Drott, Spotify’s head of programmatic solutions once boasted, “We not only know what our users are listening to, we also know their personal activities as well,” and gave showering as an example. The company registers “550,000 shower streams per day.”

Now, I have no issue with anyone knowing I like to bump a good tune in the shower. That said, the idea of Spotify knowing not just what songs I’m listening to, but also what I’m doing and potentially how I’m feeling if I’m listening to my “get hyped” or “just need a good cry” playlists feels pretty weird. Based on Spotify’s privacy policy, the company shares “certain personal data,” but the details aren’t explicitly laid out. According to this report from Ashley Carman at The Verge, that data can include your location, age, and the device you’re listening on. Last year, a Billboard report from Micha Singleton noted that the service’s pre-save feature gave record labels the ability to see your email address, artists and people you follow, as well as ongoing access to view what’s in your library.

Giving third-parties permissions and access like this isn’t new (personalized ads are increasingly common in podcasts) but the swath of data major tech and advertising companies have access to just keeps getting bigger. Free services and sites can be plastered with trackers that follow you around, giving advertisers a better peek into your browsing habits and interests. For a quick, unsettling summary, here’s Aaron Sankin and Surya Mattu for The Markup:

Data collected from your detailed web browsing habits—what specific pages you visited, for how long, what you did there—can be tied to records of products and services you purchased both online and offline and tied to your identity through things like store consumer loyalty cards. This can then be linked to information collected from an app you downloaded on your smartphone or which movie or show you streamed last night. The profiles are filled with data about each visitor, including presumed interests and geographic location.

If that freaks you out, Thorin Klosowski, my former colleague over at Wirecutter, put together a nice guide on how to protect your privacy online. This goes beyond just big tech companies, though. I’ve spent the last few weeks combing through the privacy policies of my most frequently used apps to see how much of my data they’ve been snatching up. Turns out, it’s quite a bit—and that’s scary—but I’m hopeful that my pursuit of a more privacy-focused life will be more successful than my attempts at overcoming my fear of Chucky. So, I’ve been on the hunt for alternatives to apps I use for media consumption, fitness and health tracking, and even my weather app. I’ve also made sure to reach out to every developer to make sure any data you hand over will be safe in the hands of these nifty apps. Here’s what I found.

Turn a new page

Let’s get these two Amazon-owned services out of the way first. The popular-among-book-nerds service Goodreads helps you keep track of your readings and share progress with friends, find new books to read, and even discuss your favorites with like-minded bookworms. According to the Amazon-owned company’s privacy policy, your data is shared with third parties for targeted ads, and this post from July gives a better glimpse into how the whole thing works. On its own, the info about what books you dig may not seem that troublesome, but Amazon already has plenty of data on you, and your reading habits can give them even more insight. For instance, if you stop reading the latest tell-all from White House insiders halfway through, or give it one-star, that might hint at your political leanings. If you were to search for a book with help coping with a mental health disorder, or add a bunch of self-care books to your to-read list, they could gather a bit about where your head’s at at any given moment.

That’s kind of the deal with many social networks—you get a free service to share things with your friends, they get piles of data about what you like or what makes you tick—but if you can ditch the social aspect of Goodreads, I’ve found Book Track to be a great alternative, with an interface that puts Goodreads to shame. In it, you can make lists of the books you’re reading or want to read, make note of books you’ve loaned out, get stats on how much you’ve read, and even jot down quotes you like and keep them connected to the specific book.

You can check the Book Track’s privacy policy for yourself, but I spoke with the app’s creator, Simone Montalto to be sure of the app’s security. He says the app is free of tracking services, and all user data is stored in their respective iCloud accounts.

Android alternative: Handy Library You can read the privacy policy here.

Bound to happen

Amazon has the bookworm market on lock, thanks to its arsenal of Kindle devices, all of which sync with the company’s Goodreads and Audible services. Combine that with everything the company knows about your spending habits, and the picture starts to look pretty grim.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. I’ve mentioned before as an alternative to getting audiobooks through Audible. It’s based on the same subscription model as Audible, giving you one credit to get an audiobook per month that you can download as a .zip file and save in an archive, with the added benefit of giving a little back to a local bookstore of your choosing. You can listen to the audiobooks in the app, but based on the company’s policy, which notes that your data may be anonymized and shared in aggregate with affiliate partners and advertisers, I’ve switched to Bound for all my audiobook tuneage. While Libro will still have some data on you based on the books in your library—and any other data you hand over— using an app like Bound means you won’t have to install the company’s app on your phone, which can minimize how much data they gather about your actual listening habits.

The app’s pretty straightforward: just load your audiobooks from your cloud storage service (or local drive) and they’ll be readily available in your library. You can bookmark sections that stick out to you, and edit the metadata if you like things to be just right. According to Tim Bueno, the app’s creator, the only data that gets shared is anonymous crash reports, which go to the Google-owned Firebase. “This crash data is all anonymized and cannot be traced back to an individual user’s device,” he told me over email, “I use it to become aware of bugs that occur in the wild.”

Android alternative: Timmy. You can read the privacy policy here.

Extra, extra

Like every other privacy policy I encountered, Pocket’s didn’t leave me feeling too protected. Since writing about Pocket a few months ago, I’ve switched to Goodlinks, an iCloud-based bookmarking app that keeps my throne of unread articles in a vault, away from any advertisers who may want a peek. Like Pocket, you can quickly save and tag articles in Goodlinks, and it’ll sync across all your iOS devices. It might not have the article recommendations that Pocket or Instapaper do, and it won’t travel well if you’re looking for something cross-platform, but I haven’t missed Pocket since plugging Goodlinks into my daily flow.

Android Alternative: Pinkt for Pinboard. You can read the privacy policy in the app’s description, which notes that it contains no third-party trackers or ads. You’ll need a Pinboard subscription, but the site’s privacy policy is pretty clear that user data doesn’t get shared with third-parties.

Big screen, big data

Movie buffs will probably be familiar with Letterboxd, which is like Goodreads for cinephiles. I’ve gotten plenty of good recommendations from the curated lists of movie lovers I’ve come to trust, but, again, that’s handing over a lot of info that might end up in the hands of another party. So, now I store it all in Sofa, which I wrote about a few issues back.

With its ability to keep track of what I’m watching or listening to, things I’d like to visit later, and customizable lists format, Sofa helped me better distribute the time I spend on the couch, and makes sure I don’t forget to watch that show my friend keeps bugging me about (right now it’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). The best part? Sofa doesn’t keep hold of any data you hand it, and unless you choose to sync via iCloud, it’ll only be stored on your device. As Shawn Hickman, the app’s developer told me over email, “I don’t even know what people save to their lists!”

Android alternative: Showly. You can read the privacy policy here.

Plate full of data

Health tracking apps can be invaluable in making sure you’re taking care of yourself, between logging workouts, marking calorie and hydration intake, and even just making sure you took your medicine. They also handle some of your most personal data, and according to this piece from Proton VPN’s blog and Dan Rosenbaum’s piece for The Verge, there’s plenty of room to be concerned.

After reading the MacStories  review of Foodnoms, a privacy-focused calorie counter, I’ve gotten back to counting my calories to ensure that my ADHD meds don’t interfere with me staying nourished. As with Sofa, all your data is stored on iCloud, and the site’s privacy policy makes it pretty clear that Foodnoms won’t hang onto any of it.

Android Alternative: Macros. You can read the privacy policy on the app’s landing page. 

Weather the storm

There’s a good chance your third-party weather app is tracking things like your location, and could even be storing your email address and phone IMEI identification numbers, according to this report from Motherboard. After trying out Weather Line and speaking with their team about the lengths they’ve gone to in order to protect user’s data, it’s clear the company doesn’t track any personally identifiable information. Pair that with an elegant interface that’s as comprehensive as it is nice to look at, and you’ve got a solid weather app that won’t follow you around. You could also just use iOS’s stock weather app, though it won’t be as feature rich or as pretty as Weather Line.

Android Alternative: Carrot (also available on iOS). You can read the privacy policy here.

Worth it

Maybe this sounds a bit too tin-foily for you, or you’d rather not pay for services you can get elsewhere for free, and that’s fine! But concerns are growing around the ways tech companies hoard our data, both with and without our knowledge. We’ve started to see the consequences of it, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep letting strangers find more enticing things to plug into our eyes. Nobody’s qutting Instagram or Twitter any time soon, but even these small changes can help send the message that our data should be ours—and it should be.

📚 Good Reads:

Why social media makes you feel so old (Vox): You don’t have to venture too far online to feel your youth whisked away by whatever meme the youths are eating up right now. A quick glance at my teen brother’s Instagram widens the age gap between us with every reference he makes to Jojo (Rabbit? Singer of 2004’s hit breakup song?) memes. But, as Rebecca Jennings notes in this piece for Vox, it’s not really these moments, nor the ever-present ankle pain I’ve had since rushing to my car to get a good parking spot, that leaves us feeling old when we’re still very much in our prime. Instead, it’s the sense that we should already have everything figured out, all while the systems meant to help us advance have made it increasingly difficult to do so. 

Clear conquered U.S. Airports. Now it wants to own your entire digital identity. (OneZero): If you’ve spent any time in an airport over the last few years, you’ve probably been pestered by someone working for Clear to sign up for their service, which lets you skip the pesky and uncomfortable TSA security line. For frequent travelers who are sick of the wait, $179 a year might not seem too bad. According to this report, though, customers are handing over a lot more than just a decent chunk of cash. Clear envisions a future wherein your identity can be verified via fingerprint or iris scan with every transaction, whether it’s buying a beer at a sports event, checking into a hotel, or getting a health screening before being allowed to go to work. The report notes the company line is that it won’t sell or rent out any customer data, but that it may use that data to market more relevant ads and products to its users. In addition to unsettling amounts of data being collected, services like these can also make life harder for those who can’t access them. Getting an ID is already hard enough for homeless people, and adding these barriers of verification without making them accessible, will just exacerbate that problem. 

To mend a broken internet, create online parks (Wired): If your screen time has jumped exponentially this year, you’ve probably seen how polarized any online community has gotten. Everybody’s wrong about something, and eventually someone’s going to find a reason to be mad at you. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, says Eli Pariser. He argues that, by looking to public parks, libraries, and other spaces that encourage socializing with those outside our typical bubbles, we can build places online that can bring us together to share common hardships and collectively build a more welcoming and diverse internet. 

🌐 Just Browsing:

🕸 Take a journey through The Old Internet. 🔥 If you haven’t checked out Hades, this review lays out what makes it such a fun, refreshing entry in the rogue-lite game genre. 🦕 How the word ‘bone’ got banned at a paleontology conference. 📽 Documentary Mania has a great collection of documentaries you can stream for free. 🍾 Mezcal’s surge in popularity has led to some of my favorite cocktails, but the ethics of producing it have gotten complicated. 📨 This app makes it easier to send mail to incarcerated people. 🔀 On the joy of Reddit’s random button. ☎️ Take a look at some neat retro tech

🔧 Toolkit:

It makes sense that, given how much more time I’m spending on my phone this year, my digital life has become an unbelievably cluttered mess. My camera roll is out of control with screenshots and blurry pictures of my pups. I haven’t organized my budgeting app at all this month. Worst of all, my notes have become a disaster. Part of that, I’ve realized, is that my note taking process was totally counterintuitive to the way my brain works. That’s changed since I’ve found the Zettelkasten method, which aims to connect the dots between ideas that you might not have been able to otherwise. Rather than big pages of text for each book you read or every project you’re working on, this method encourages you to take index card-sized notes, with the ability to link back to other notes within each one. If your notes have begun to feel like a disaster, it’s worth taking a look at changing how you take notes

💕 And now, here’s something we hope you’ll really like:

If you’re into plants, check out /r/plantsandpots. Whether you need inspiration for the next installment in your home jungle, or just like to see what other people are propping up on their shelves, it’s a good way to sink a few minutes while getting some style tips from fellow plant lovers. 

As always, if you have any questions, feedback, or just want to say hello, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue.