Remember when Google's "Do No Evil' slogan was somewhat believable? OK, maybe you were never that naive, but Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA's secret Prism project and what seems like almost weekly hacking scandals have lead to widespread distrust of the tech industry.
It seems on a daily basis we install software or download an app that requires us to give away personal data without giving it a passing thought. So much so, that many have suggested that privacy is dead. However, it is still possible to cling to the last vestiges of privacy by avoiding the all-seeing eye of big tech, and to do it without going offline and turning into a hermit. We've put together a list of alternatives to the nosy products churned out by Microsoft, Google and Apple.
Laptop/Desktop Operating Systems
Despite their popularity in swanky coffee shops, only about 7 percent of the market uses Apple Macs. Pretty much everyone else is still using Microsoft Windows in some shape or form. Most machines come with one of these operating systems preinstalled, but there's another option.
The only really alternative here is the open source OS, Linux. A few years ago Linux was inaccessible to the average user and still relied heavily on command prompts. But these days it's actually quite manageable. The most popular version of Linux is Ubuntu and it can be easily installed on any PC or Mac. You can download the OS for free or buy a DVD for a few bucks. Once installed, Ubuntu looks similar to Windows or MacOS and anyone who can use a mouse will be able to use it without too much effort. There are more than 40,000 applications available for Ubuntu, giving you ample choice for email clients, Web browsers and word processing suites.
The smartphone and tablet markets are dominated by Android and Apple, who, between them, hold more than 90 percent of the market. Symbian, Windows and BlackBerry take up most of the remaining marketshare but there are plenty of alternatives.
The Blackphone 2 was just launched this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Blackphone's selling point is its security. The phone runs on a modified version of Android called PrivateOS so you get access to everything that the Google Play Store offers should you be tempted. The phone claims to be able to secure calls, texts and contacts using its own apps called Silent Phone, Silent Text, and Silent Contacts, respectively. The original phone launched at MWC 2014 claimed to be NSA-proof before being easily hacked late last year, so we'll have to see how the new incarnation fares.
CyanogenMod is a privacy-enhanced offshoot of Android which can be installed on any phone or tablet running Google's mobile OS. It is now also available preinstalled on some mostly Chinese-made handsets. Installing the CyanogenMod firmware gets rid of all the extra skinware and software provided by most manufacturers, which should speed up your device. Also CyanogenMod is always built on top of Android's latest version, which means that you get the most up-to-date software experience even if your smartphone's manufacturer has not released an update yet. You can download CyanogenMod firmware here, but the downside of doing so is that you'll void your warrantee.
Mozilla, the nonprofit organization famous for the Firefox browser, entered the mobile market a few years ago with the Firefox OS. Though mainly targeting market growth in the developing world and running on feature or dumbphones rather than touchscreens, Mozilla announced that LG phones running Firefox OS will launch in the U.S. and Japan in 2016. The company also claims to be working on a $25 smartphone.
Samsung and Intel have developed a Linux-based mobile OS called Tizen. The Samsung Z1, the first phone running Tizen, launched in January but is currently only available in India. Ubuntu also has a mobile OS and Spanish manufacturer BQ released the first phone running the operating system, the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition. Finally, Finnish firm Jolla, founded by some former Nokia employees, has released a phone and a tablet running its in-house Linux-based Sailfish OS
Our individual Web browser history is probably the last thing we want going public. Here again, the market is dominated by the big three with Chrome, Internet Explorer and Safari. The obvious alternatives are Mozilla's Firefox and, to a lesser extent, Opera. But there are hundreds of others.
WhiteHat Aviator is a privacy-based browser that blocks holes through which most malicious sites infect your computer. It cuts out all ads and disables the media autoplay. This way, nothing on a website you visit can launch without your permission.
Citrio claims it can increase download speeds. The browser has many additional features, like an integrated bit-torrent client, proxy switcher, video saver and a download manager.
Midori is useful if you're stuck using a slow computer. It's a lightweight browser that doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles and it only uses a fraction of the RAM compared with competitors, so it shouldn't crash your ailing machine.
There are a myriad of options but the majority of people use Gmail or preinstalled default mail apps from Apple or Microsoft Outlook. Mozilla has a good option in Thunderbird and there is also Opera Mail. Unibox and Postbox are popular Mac alternative clients, but they will cost you $10. Hushmail is a mobile and Web-based alternative to Gmail that offers built-in encryption and no advertisements. Zoho and Mail.com are also popular and Shortmail allows you to use your Twitter handle as your email address.
Microsoft is dominant here, although Google Docs is catching up. Open Office, the free open source software, has been around for more than 15 years and works fine, even if it'll always be the poor relation of Microsoft's version. Libre Office is a similar product and Neo Office is basically an Open Office for Mac, the difference being that it costs $30. As for Web-based alternatives there's Zoho Docs, ThinkFree and Zimba. Peepel offers a desktop-like experience from within your web browser.
These are just a portion of the alternative technologies available. It's actually quite easy to survive without Google, Apple or Microsoft, the problem is that it's just not convenient. Abandoning the tools that are part of your daily life might be a bit much to ask, as there's no immediate reward for all this pain, just the intangible benefit of keeping your private data hidden. I might consider something like CyanogenMod because I could still use all my favourite Android apps, but then there's the warrantee issue dragging me back to the mainstream.
Photo: Kirk Bolam | Flickr