IMG_4130 - Version 2

Owning my own data

I final­ly got sick and tired of the sync dance with Apple and Google not want­i­ng to talk to one anoth­er. I use a Mac but I also have an iPad and since recent­ly I now have an Android phone. I had been sync­ing with iCloud and a long time ago I import­ed all my con­tacts into Google, but I haven’t had sync on that for quite a while.

After tear­ing my hair out try­ing to come up with a way to sync both ser­vices with one anoth­er, I called it a day. Almost lit­er­al­ly. Most of the day today has been spent set­ting up a new per­son­al sub­do­main and installing Own­Cloud, an open source cloud-stor­age and ‑ser­vices solu­tion. It requires that you have your own web­serv­er (though you can put it on a PC and access it via VPN1) but it pro­vides a tremen­dous amount of the func­tion­al­i­ty that iCloud or Google does:

  • Cal­en­dar
  • Con­tacts
  • Files (with desk­top Drop­box-like clients for desk­top and mobile devices)
  • Doc­u­ments (I haven’t used it but it pur­ports to do what Google Docs does)

I have set it up to auto­mat­i­cal­ly upload files to my serv­er when I take a pic­ture with the cam­era on the phone. I could use it to share pho­tos online the same way peo­ple do with fold­ers on Drop­box or Spideroak.

It was sur­pris­ing­ly easy. I set it up on an Apache web­serv­er with a Post­greSQL back-end. Most of what took the extra time was edit­ing and con­sol­i­dat­ing dupli­cates in my address book. There was a lit­tle bit of extra time asso­ci­at­ed with some of the pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty mea­sures I took, but those prob­a­bly weren’t entire­ly necessary.

I used to do all my sync­ing with a USB cable on the desk­top. I hat­ed the idea that one of the huge tech com­pa­nies could have a copy of my entire address book. Not that I care for my own sake, but I did­n’t like that for the sake of my own con­ve­nience I would essen­tial­ly give up oth­er peo­ple’s pri­va­cy. Even when I got the Palm Pre, which was designed around putting every­thing in the Cloud, I used third-par­ty soft­ware2 to sync my con­tact data with the phone. It was­n’t until I got an Android phone that I gave up and let Google have all my infor­ma­tion — there just did­n’t seem to be any oth­er option. Then when I switched back to iOS, it did­n’t seem like such a big hur­dle to sync my con­tacts using iCloud.

Not that I think that Apple or Google is build­ing a huge list of phone num­bers for doing tele­mar­ket­ing, but they both already do a great job of cross-ref­er­enc­ing peo­ple’s address books to find out who your friends and asso­ciates are. Google is crunch­ing enor­mous amounts of data and they no doubt have ways of pulling out all sorts of per­son­al infor­ma­tion with­out tech­ni­cal­ly ever look­ing at pri­vate data, just by look­ing at aggre­gates and pro­files based on peo­ple’s pri­vate data.3

There’s a say­ing I find par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant here: when you get some­thing for free, you’re not the cus­tomer. You’re the prod­uct that’s being sold to some­one else. That’s how it is with tele­vi­sion, and with Apple offer­ing the Mav­er­icks upgrade at no charge while remov­ing the abil­i­ty of Apple users to sync their data with any oth­er cloud ser­vice, it seems obvi­ous that it’s true in every oth­er area.

Now I have delet­ed all my con­tacts from Google, and soon I will delete my con­tacts from iCloud. For sev­er­al years I’ve been sell­ing my friends’ pri­vate infor­ma­tion to large cor­po­ra­tions in exchange for the con­ve­nience of not plug­ging a cable into my com­put­er. I hold no illu­sions that Apple and Google don’t have all that data tucked away, but at least I’m not going to con­tin­ue adding and updat­ing their con­tact databases.

I would­n’t give a friend’s phone num­ber and address to anoth­er friend, even some­one I trust, with­out first obtain­ing their per­mis­sion. I’m not going to con­tin­ue to do the same thing, except with all my friends’ and asso­ciates’ pri­vate infor­ma­tion, giv­en to a bunch of peo­ple I don’t know.4

  1. I read about some­one installing Own­Cloud on a Rasp­ber­ry Pi! 
  2. Called The Miss­ing Sync
  3. Tech­niques for pulling infor­ma­tion out of data with­out look­ing at indi­vid­ual pieces of infor­ma­tion have exist­ed for decades at least. 
  4. Yes, cor­po­ra­tions are peo­ple. The way that Soy­lent Green is peo­ple. 

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