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Free, privacy-focused alternatives to keep your documents from Google’s prying eyes

Many use Google’s suite of tools for all sorts of tasks, but for those concerned with privacy, Google leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s two free, privacy-focused alternatives. A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. FILE PHOTO: /Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Many use Google’s suite of tools for all sorts of tasks, but for those concerned with privacy, Google leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s two free, privacy-focused alternatives. A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. FILE PHOTO: /Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Published Jun 27, 2022

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Johannesburg - Google makes fantastic free tools whose utility and smooth integration has led to a large fraction of people using their tools for almost everything they need. Document storage, communication and navigation are just some of the things you can do without ever needing to lose sight of the colourful Google banner.

However, Google’s practices regarding data privacy are less stellar. All of Google’s statements proclaim that the data you upload to their services does not belong to them, and that they do not sell it on to third parties. But this is mostly a legal technicality.

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Google regularly shares your data with third parties in various forms, just not for direct monetary compensation. This usually happens during Google Ad auctions, where thousands of companies are broadcast information about your location and browsing habits.

This isn’t even including what Google might be doing with your data internally. One of Google’s most important arms is AI research. Data is the primary fuel for modern AI models. Google explicitly uses your browsing data to train and deploy its various recommender systems on YouTube and its Search Engine. It is unclear to what extent they are making use of user data for its other applications.

While it might seem silly to think that Google would have full access to your documents, it’s not far from the truth. Data involved in Google services is not end-to-end encrypted, meaning that the service provider on the other end can read any information stored on or travelling through its systems.

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It’s unlikely that any employee is able to snoop through your spreadsheets, but it is clear that Google runs your images and documents through various internal systems.

Many of these are to do with illegal content which can be hard to argue against. But this demonstrates that Google is able and willing to comb through your information for its own purposes.

For many people whose entire life histories, file storage, and communication logs are managed by the Google ecosystem, this may be a cause for concern. Especially considering recent efforts in AI research showing that some information from a model’s training data can be extracted intact from the final model. AI models aren’t intended to memorise, but it seems they often can.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. End-to-end encryption is efficient and widely available – Google chooses not to prioritise user privacy. Thankfully, there are new services cropping up to fill needs of those using Google’s suite while being privacy-focused.

A first example would be CryptPad. The fully-featured collaboration suite will feel familiar and comfortable to those coming from Google services. CryptPad supports editors for various file types, including spreadsheets, forms, slideshows and code. This includes a history feature which allows you to jump back to past versions of a document.

CryptPad comes with integrated cloud storage, unsurprisingly dubbed CryptDrive. All information is encrypted and inaccessible to CryptPad itself. Its software is open source, and the service doesn’t require you to submit any personal information to create an account.

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For those looking for a Gmail alternative, newcomer Skiff can fill the gap. Skiff is a privacy-focused email service which also comes with a document editor and cloud storage. Skiff allows you to import documents from Google Drive, making for a mostly seamless transition. However, some formatting isn’t supported such as strikethrough and highlighting.

The service allows you to store files in documents, which is a feature not seen in many other document editors. You also have the option to use decentralised storage (powered by the well-known InterPlanetary File System) so that no single server is in control of your data. Skiff also allows for private payments via Crypto, should you choose to buy a premium plan.

Skiff and CryptPad use the ‘freemium’ business model. These services are free to use, but offer premium plans with upgraded storage and extra features. Hopefully the coming years will see a continued rise of privacy-focussed options for escaping the Big Tech information harvesting net.

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