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The Privacy Project, 1 Year Later: What Worked

One year ago, I started a project to disengage myself from the internet...and from the companies that are making it a shitty place to be.


You can read all about the project in my ebook Disengage, which is available for free online or as a PDF or EPUB download. The ebook goes into deep detail on the whys and hows of backing away from the internet, and includes:


  • Information about surveillance capitalism, chokepoint capitalism, and "enshittification"

  • Instructions on how to remove yourself from various data broker databases

  • Recommended products and their prices, such as privacy-oriented email services, private browsers, and opt-out services

  • Detailed instructions on how to reject cookies in various browsers, keep smart home products from tracking you, and more

  • Downloadable worksheets and spreadsheets


I don’t ask for payment, you don’t need to fill out a form, there are no affiliate links in the ebook, and I don’t track downloads. Truly no strings attached! (Though if you want to share my posts or join my email newsletter, I wouldn’t complain. :)


Recently, I posted an article on the tactics and products which, a year later, proved to be not worth the time and resources I spent on them. In this article, I’ll share the actions I took and the products I used that did work for me.


I’m not going to detail every single thing that passed my personal worthiness test. Instead, I’ll go over the actions that stood out to me as having the most impact. I hope this information will be useful to you if you decide to launch your own Disengage project.


What Worked: Switching to Proton Mail


I moved from Gmail to Proton, a privacy-first email provider that also offers a calendar, password manager, VPN, email aliases, and more. The company offers free accounts, and a paid account with more features. (Check out Disengage for the months-long process I used to move from Gmail to Proton.)


The downsides: Proton’s email search is slow and clunky, and the way emails are threaded can be confusing, as well. In addition, you can’t edit shared calendar events from the phone app.


Other than those very small issues, I love Proton. I created an address in my domain just for friends and family, made a Proton-branded address for trusted businesses and business associates, and use “hide my email” aliases for everything else. As for the other Proton products, Drive works as it should, and my husband joined Proton so we can share multiple calendars.


The verdict? While Proton Mail has its disadvantages over Gmail, so far I’m very pleased with it. More importantly, it feels great to not use Gmail. And speaking of which...


What Worked: Leaving the Google Ecosystem


This was the biggest action I took: Switching away from not just Gmail, but also Google Drive and Google Search. I am aware there’s no way to completely escape Google, but I no longer knowingly or willingly use their products. (Check out Disengage for a more thorough description of all the Google products and alternatives for each.)


I really intended to leave the Big 5: Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Google. As I wrote in my post about what didn’t work, I didn’t manage to fully extricate myself from Amazon shopping, and I haven’t even tried ditching Apple yet. But I was able to leave Google and it was great.


Finding alternatives for Google Search, Google Photos, Chrome, and Google Calendar was easy. Finding a replacement for Google Drive was more challenging.


Unfortunately, Proton Drive doesn’t let you edit or collaborate on files; it’s purely a cloud storage solution. So I tried moving all my documents to, which does have those features. I had to move the files manually, and discovered that if I tried to move too many folders at once, the contents of inner folders would not transfer over. It took days to manually transfer over all my files. A few days later, Box deleted a thousands of my files when I tried reorganizing my folders. (Thank goodness I hadn’t deleted them from Google Drive yet.)


Finally, I decided to move all my files to Proton Drive and use the free version of Zoho Office for files I’m actively editing or collaborating on. It’s not ideal, but it works, and it allowed me to shut down that my Google account.


The day I deleted my Google account felt good. I ended up having to reactivate it more than once—which you can do within 30 days—when I needed to get into my old Gmail account to access security codes. But once I was certain I was truly done, I waited out the 30 days and then tried to log in.


My account was gone.


At least 15 years’ worth of emails, thousands of files, all the people and businesses who had that address but who I didn’t give my new one to...left in the past. Of course, I had already moved my emails and files over to Proton, but I still felt a nice sense of finality when that account went bye-bye.


One tiny challenge I run into is filling out Google forms...for which one usually needs to have a Google account. I read that the owner of the form can change this requirement by not requesting/allowing file uploads on the form, but not many people know that.


The solution: Whenever I need to fill out a Google form, my husband lets me use his Gmail address; though he has also moved to Proton, he’s held onto his Google account.


Despite all that, Google is hard to quit! I automatically turned to Google Translate when I needed to write a note in a foreign language, without even thinking about it. So clearly it will take a little longer to train myself out of the knee-jerk decision to use Google products for some needs.


Was it worth it? Hell, yes. I enjoy being able to search without my query being used to profile me and target me with ads. My personal files are now actually personal. As a bonus, I’m happy to have withdrawn one tiny fraction of one billionth of the money flowing into this rapacious, enshittifying, data-hoovering monopoly. 😊


Leaving Google: highly recommended.


What Worked: Deleting/Updating Accounts


I created a spreadsheet of every business, app, website, and service I’d ever used. The spreadsheet, which you can download for free from the Disengage page, includes the name of each company, my login details, whether to keep the account or shut it down, and the status of my communications preferences and data deletion requests.


Before shutting down old or unwanted accounts, I made sure to ask the company to delete my data. If the company ignored me or refused—or if there was no way to delete the account at all—I obfuscated all the data, changed the password to a random string of characters, and logged out for good.


For accounts I wanted to keep, I decided whether to use my real name, email address, and phone number or aliases, and entered this information into the spreadsheet.


My gut tells me cleaning up my accounts was totally worth it. I had to make a major effort up-front to build the database, but then it was a simple matter to delete or update just a few accounts per day. I don’t know what material effects all this has had—but I’m assuming that at the very least, less of my data is floating around out there, vulnerable to security breaches.


What Worked: Using DeleteMe to Opt Out of People-Finder Sites

I started using DeleteMe to opt my data out of people-search sites like Whitepages, Spokeo, and ThatsThem.

DeleteMe doesn’t handle every single people-search site. But some nice people (like Yael Grauer) have compiled more comprehensive lists of such sites, so I created a spreadsheet of the companies DeleteMe targets plus as many other people-finder sites as I could find using lists like Yael’s. I then manually opted myself—and, often, my family members—out of the ones DeleteMe didn’t do. (This spreadsheet is available for download from the Disengage site.)


Now, when I search for myself on various sites, another person who shares my name pops up...and I am typically not listed at all. I don’t know what material effect this has had on my life, but I like knowing that my personal data—from the value of my house to my relatives’ names and ages—isn’t as easy to find as it used to be.


DeleteMe’s quarterly reports, showing which sites DeleteMe checked and the results, are very interesting. Not to mention, DeleteMe is one of the few businesses with an email newsletter that’s actually worth reading!


DeleteMe is pretty pricey, though, so I’m considering dropping the service once my year-long subscription is up and tackling the task myself. I do like their email alias feature, but my Proton Mail subscription includes a similar feature, and there’s no sense in paying for it twice.


However, I think it’s 100% worth it to hire a service like DeleteMe for at least the first year, especially if you have more money than time.


What Worked: Opting Out of Data Brokers


Here, I manually opted myself out of the seven biggest data brokers and the four major credit agencies. Opt-out links and instructions for each of these are available in Disengage.


I wasn’t able to opt out of Foursquare, because they require you to enter a code from your phone that Apple does not make available to iPhone owners. And I received a postal letter from LexisNexis that was so confusing I kept it in my “to do” pile until I got tired of looking at it and threw it out. Overall, though, this part of my Disengage project went smoothly.


Opting out of the brokers was time well spent, if only because these businesses collect massive amounts of personal data—from income and purchasing habits to school grades and date of birth—and have been targets of scary-big data breaches.


What Worked: Controlling My Story


In this part of the project, I edited, updated, or deleted my bylines, bios, interviews, and photos—which were all over the web thanks to my 25-year career as a freelance writer.


Now, almost a year later, almost all of my bios are scrubbed of personal info I don’t want available to the public. Some interviews with me have been deleted from websites and podcasts at my request. And my old clients were very good about changing my bylines.


The challenges:


  1. Even though I resubmitted all the updated sites to Google, in many cases the Google Search preview text still shows the old information...a year later!

  2. I was never able to edit or delete my Google “knowledge” panel, but I was able to trick it into showing an incorrect birth year.

  3. In many cases, I wasn’t able to get many of my photos removed or changed. I did manage to edit my photo on accounts I control, such as by uploading a photo from an acting job or one of my paintings in place of my profile photo. But otherwise, it was either impossible or not worth it to pursue the issue. Truthfully, I’m not sure it even matters! For me, it’s more about the desire to feel like I’m “gone” from the internet than any concern about privacy or safety.


While it was a pain to track down all my online bios, interviews, and bylines and then nicely request that they be changed or deleted, one year later I’m glad I did it. And now I know to be more careful about the information I share in these formats in the future.


What Worked: Deleting Inessential Apps


During my experiment with the LightPhone, I learned how to manage my life with nothing but clock and podcast apps. So after switching to a refurbished iPhone, I only added back the apps I truly missed having, such as apps for my kid’s school and sports team, my bank, and the local library.


As for Apple’s pre-loaded apps: I “hid” Safari by turning on communication limits, and left some of the other standard tools, such as the weather and calculator apps.


There is now less than one page of apps on my phone. The fewer apps I have, the fewer apps that are tracking, storing, and sharing my data. It’s also easier to use the phone when it’s not cluttered with apps, and there’s less opportunity for wasting time online.


What Worked: Hiding Home Photos


Here, I claimed my home on the various real estate sites and hid the interior photos. Then I requested that Google Street View and Apple Maps Street View blur the exterior images of my home.


The process was fast and fairly easy—instructions are in Disengage—except for two minor challenges:


  • I wonder if having blurred home photos will be an issue when we want to sell our home in the future, as some of the real estate sites pull the main image from Google Street View. However, I’m confident real estate agents have ways to get around that potential issue, such as by manually uploading an exterior photo.

  • I just discovered that Zillow, for some reason, had re-enabled the interior photos of my home, so I had to go in and re-check that box. Clearly, I’ll need to check these sites a couple times per year to make sure the photos stay gone.


Hiding photos of my house was easy and free, and it’s nice knowing people can’t see inside my home online. One or two real estate sites don’t allow you to remove the exterior photo of your home, but I can live with that.


What Worked: Deleting Social Media Posts and Online Reviews


I deleted all my old social media posts, forum posts, and reviews, and then closed out the accounts altogether. I had already killed off my Facebook account in 2015, but still had accounts with Instagram, Reddit, LinkedIn, Nextdoor, and various discussion forums.


LinkedIn was the hardest to leave—not because they make it hard, which they do, but because it felt like I was deleting my 25 years’ worth of hard-earned business experience from the face of the earth. My account was a timeline of my career: It showcased my articles, portfolio, recommendations, and work history—including magazine writing, book authoring, content training, and writer coaching—plus hundreds of posts with images and videos my project manager and I painstakingly created. What if I decided to get back into freelance writing someday?


Well, I decided, if that happened I would just start a new account and put everything back.


So I downloaded all my data, and for good measure I manually copy-pasted every single post into a document and saved the file on my laptop, on an external hard drive, and in Proton Drive.


The more posts I deleted, and the more accounts I closed, the lighter I felt. When I blocked the sites to make extra-sure I wouldn’t give in to temptation, I felt even more liberated.


Now, when I have a question or challenge, I might use the privacy-first search engine DuckDuckGo to find an answer...but asking thousands of strangers for their opinions and advice is no longer a first-line solution for me.


As for all the friends I had on social sites, my philosophy is this: If the only way I know someone got married, had a baby, got a new job, or earned a degree is through social media...then we’re not really that close. This means I haven’t actually lost friends by quitting social media, and have become closer to the people I know in real life because I can focus more of my attention on them.


Out of all the actions I took, quitting discussion forums and social media has had the most obvious benefit. I have zero desire to look at them, except for the occasional hankering to scroll through Reddit. (If I give in to the desire, I’m very intentional about it, because I need to want it enough to unblock the site.) I trust my own decisions and opinions mores. I’m not getting riled up by unhinged trolls on social media.


I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything at all!


What Worked: Not Being Loyal


I didn’t want to give up discounts, but I also didn’t want to let companies use and abuse my personal data forever in exchange for five dollars off or free shipping.


The workaround: I started using Proton Mail’s “hide my address” feature in pop-ups offering discounts. When I click in the email field, Proton gives me the option to “use my email” or “hide my email.” If I click “hide my email,” Proton generates an alias on the fly. Then I simply delete the alias once I’ve used the sign-up discount.


Another cool discovery is that my grocery store will let customers use any name and any ten-digit number in its loyalty program. So I made up a name and number, and listed my home address as the store’s address. I’m certain they’re connecting this data with the actual info from my credit card when I shop, but I feel better having just one more layer of obfuscation between myself and them.


Finally, I deleted the Honey x PayPal browser add-on, which not only automatically enters available promo codes at checkout, but also offers a small amount of cash back. It was nice getting that $10 cash back every so often, but not worth it for me to have an extension tracking my shopping habits. I now use sites like RetailMeNot to manually search for promo codes.


What Worked: Installing Cookie Blockers


I turned on Enhanced Tracking Protection in Firefox and also installed the DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials browser add-on. Maybe this is overkill, but it’s easy and low-risk.


Some sites outright reject me if I refuse their cookies...and others give me plaintive pop-ups begging me to turn off my ad blocker. Occasionally a website won’t work right and I have to turn off Enhanced Tracking Protection, but I can do it with two clicks.


I love seeing how many trackers have been blocked! And again, installing the add-on and turning on Firefox protection was super easy. Two thumbs up.


What Worked: Replacing Microsoft Office


I kept stalling on doing this because I use Microsoft Word so much, but finally I got an error message saying Microsoft is no longer supporting the version of Office I bought and paid for. Instead, they encouraged me to sign up for a monthly subscription for the newest version.


That was the impetus to finally make the leap to LibreOffice, a suite of free, open-source software compatible with such formats as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Publisher. You can export your work in many different formats, including PDF. You can even create fillable PDFs!


I was so happy with LibreOffice, so quickly, that I immediately sent them a donation.


The website has good information on how to make Word, Excel, and Powerpoint files open in LibreOffice automatically. One small drawback is that LibreOffice's fonts don't map directly to Microsoft fonts, so when I opened Word files they looked like gibberish. But their website helped with that, too, and I was able to change the fonts in every document globally.


I then needed to uninstall Microsoft Office, since—being unsupported—it now posed a security risk. If you have a Mac, you know removing applications is not easy because they install weird little files all over your hard drive. This article from How-To Geek helped me find and eliminate all those files.


Dumping this huge suite of applications takes me that much more out of data capitalists' sights, and the process was fast—maybe half an hour total—and cheap.


How Sustainable Was My Disengage Project?


I know all of this sounds like a lot of work.


The good news is, almost all of the work was front-loaded. Once I made the choices and did the work to put them into action, they continued along on their own. Not only that, I’ve trained myself to take care of privacy-related tasks automatically.


Some examples:


  • DeleteMe continues to monitor the people-search sites for my data and opt me out of the them.

  • The accounts, posts, reviews, etc., I deleted have remained deleted.

  • Proton automatically suggests an alias email every time I fill out a form online; one click, and it's done.

  •  Firefox and DuckDuckGo are set up as defaults so I don't need to think about them every time I open my laptop.

  • Using Proton Mail, Drive, Calendar, etc. required no additional work from me after the initial setup.

  • The cookie blockers and pixel blockers do their work behind the scenes whenever I’m online or using email.

  • When a website pops up a cookie agreement, instead of automatically clicking “OK” like I used to, I now take a few seconds to reject the cookies or deselect advertising and performance cookies. It’s become a natural part of visiting a new site.

  • Whenever I buy a new product or sign up for a service, my first steps are to tighten up the privacy and communication preferences. I no longer even have to think about it—it’s just part of the process.


As a retired freelance writer, I had the time and the bulldog-like persistence to tackle this privacy project...but like everyone else, I didn’t want to spend any more of my life energy on it than I had to. If I had to continually make as much effort as I did at the beginning, I would probably have given up pretty quickly. But luckily, that wasn't at all the case!


Was It Worth It?


The point of my Disengage project was to liberate myself from the addictive nature of social media and the internet; get rid of the creepy feeling of constantly being watched; protect my personal data; and to push back by being a tiny wrench in the machinery of surveillance capitalism.


The verdict: 100% worth the effort.


On the negative side, I’m still at my laptop more than I like. There's a lot you can't do offline without making sacrifices I don't want to make (such as not writing posts like these).


Also, I'm aware that no matter what I do, I’m being tracked in more ways than I can comprehend. I’m laughingly underpowered compared to the massive data brokers and surveillance capitalists, which lie and cheat with impunity.


On the plus side, social media is no longer a part of my life, my anxiety has decreased some, and my focus has improved. I also feel like I have more time, since I'm not being constantly pulled online.


Overall, I like life better offline than online, and it's comforting to feel a little bit more like a private person rather than a mere set of behavioral data to be tracked, analyzed, sold, and used.


It's an incredible luxury to be able to disengage from the internet at all, but I maintain that it’s possible for nearly everyone to take at least one step to protect their time, attention, data, content, and money.


Here's to disengaging from the internet...and re-engaging with everything else!

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