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The Privacy Project, 1 Year Later: What DIDN'T Work

In the spring of 2023, I embarked on an ambitious project to drastically reduce the amount of time I spent online, shrink my digital footprint, and reclaim my attention, permission, data, and money from the most egregious surveillance capitalists.


I detailed the project in my free ebook Disengage: Opting Out—and Finding New Options—to Reclaim the Internet from Spammers, Scammers, Intrusive Marketers and Big Tech. You can read this ebook online or download it as a PDF or EPUB. You don’t need to fill out a form or pay for the book, and I don’t track downloads.


This update, published roughly one year after I started the project, will give you the scoop on the tactics, products, and services I tried that were not worth the time, effort, or money:


  • reading privacy policies

  • ditching my smartphone

  • unsubscribing from email lists

  • using a VPN

  • switching to a PO box

  • quitting Amazon


Read on to find out why these things ended up being fails for me; hopefully this information will help you decide how to allocate your own resources if you’re looking to disengage from the businesses that are abusing our data, stealing our attention, and making our lives poorer.

For a look back on what did work, check out my article "The Privacy Project, 1 Year Later: What Worked."


What Didn’t Work: Reading Privacy Policies


As part of my Disengage project, I started skimming privacy policies whenever I was confronted with them—and the main result was that I was horrified and frustrated. Horrified because most privacy policies are long, long documents full of the many ways the company plans to abuse your data. Frustrated because there was usually no way to actually do anything about it.


I think I did a fair job of extricating myself from social media, apps, and the internet in general—enough for my own purposes, at least. Even so, I was forced to agree to at least one privacy policy per week. (This doesn’t even count the passive privacy policies on various websites that I implicitly agreed to by daring to view the sites!)


When I bought a new car, the salesperson insisted I sign their data release policy so she “would have permission to call and check on how we’re doing with the car.” (Like that ever happens! She never called, of course.) When our son joined a new sports team, we had to download the team communication app, as well as use platforms like Vertical Rise (for fundraising), GoFan (for game tickets), Evite, and SignupGenius...all of which have their own privacy policies.


In some cases, the privacy policy spelled out how to limit the collection, use, and sharing of my data. However, that information often applied only to California residents.


(I tried a couple of times to do it even though I don't live in California, and was somehow shocked when the companies wrote back to say they wouldn't delete my data. It just seemed pointedly rude to look me up, determine I don't live in a protected state, and inform me that they will be holding onto my data despite my clearly stated wish because the law did not prevent them from doing so.)


In other cases, the privacy policies listed time-consuming opt-out instructions, such as requiring users to call the company to ask to be removed. I had to call the manufacturer one of our cars, for example; I was on hold for a very long time and then the call was suddenly disconnected. So I sent a letter in the mail, which was the other option offered—only to receive a letter weeks later stating that they weren’t collecting data from the car itself. Great, but what about all the other kinds of data you're collecting, using, and sharing?


Finally, in most cases I was held hostage. Your son's sport team only communicates through an app? You have to agree to the policy. Don’t want to agree to the terrible terms? Then you’ll miss out on vital news and instructions from the coach.


I even had to agree to a privacy policy for myself and my son to schedule a Covid booster, which somehow seems wrong. If I don’t agree, we...don’t get a potentially life-saving vaccine?


It's probably still a good idea to at least skim privacy policies on the off chance that one actually offers meaningful choices. However, my life would probably not be much different if I decided to never read privacy policies. I guess a handful of companies that I could have opted out of would still be tracking me, collecting my data, etc. But I’m not sure it’s worth so much of my life energy—especially knowing that in the vast majority of cases, the effort is pointless.


What Didn’t Work: Unsubscribing from Email Lists


Honestly, this one could go either way. I’m definitely on fewer lists than I used to be, but protecting my email privacy by unsubscribing from lists has been an uphill battle. (In my future post about what did work, I’ll share my experiences with email tracker blockers, Proton Mail, and other handy tools.)


I signed up for the Direct Marketing Association’s fast and free Email Preferences service, which removes your email address from its member advertisers’ databases. That was easy to do, but it doesn’t protect you from (1) companies you already do business with, and (2) general spam.


One problem I encountered in trying to get (and stay) off of email lists is that some platforms automatically send you marketing emails without even asking your permission...and not using these platforms makes your life slightly more difficult in other ways. Take restaurant reservation platforms: Every single time you make a reservation, you get a follow-up email asking you to review the restaurant. I don’t leave reviews as a policy, so these emails are just an annoying waste of my time.


Even worse, in many cases unsubscribing using the opt-out link in an email just opts you out of that type of email. So you opt out of a company’s review request emails, but you still get emails suggesting local eateries...and then you opt out of those emails, but you still get emails about local events. The only way to stop the emails altogether is to navigate to their email preferences page and manually unsub from each type of email.


But read carefully! Because the big bright button on the lower right, where you would expect “save my preferences” to be, actually says “stay subscribed.” Nice.


My solution? I now use Proton Mail’s “hide my email” feature every single time I use such platforms, then delete the alias email after the order is complete. Revy, Expedia, and other egregious spammers now have dozens of my inactivated email addresses.


(Also: I now call my favorite take-out restaurants to place orders; one of the restaurant employees told me they dislike the online ordering platforms because they take such a huge commission, so that’s an extra benefit of calling instead of ordering online.)


During my Disengage project I also discovered that a lot of businesses will, over time, quietly change users’ communications preferences. I know this because I literally keep a spreadsheet of all the businesses I engage with, with details on when I last updated my preferences.


In one case, I updated the email in my account and then checked to ensure my communications preferences were set to “leave me alone forever,” which they were. Within days, I started receiving marketing emails from that company to my new email, as if the entering of a new address triggered new marketing sequences in spite of my communications preferences.


Again, unsubscribing from email lists was kinda-sorta-maybe worth it. I’ll keep unsubbing, but I probably won’t keep up the level of effort I have been to stay off of email lists.


What Didn’t Work: Using a VPN


I opted for the VPN that comes with my Proton Mail subscription. I can tell it works...because it’s created a new kind of hassle, which is that it triggers websites’ security protocols and I end up having to prove I’m a human. Sometimes I have to identify the fire hydrants or reorient the dog to match the chairs five or six times before the site will let me in.


Worse, using a VPN has caused companies like Etsy to decline my credit card, and companies such as Lowe’s to call me to make sure I’m having a product delivered to the correct address because “Your IP address has you in Virginia, your billing address is in New York, and your delivery address is Connecticut.” I’m not sure why this is even a problem—isn’t this what happens when, say, you’re browsing the internet while on vacation and order a gift for someone who doesn’t live near you?


In one case, I tried to make a large travel purchase, and the company’s fraud division made me download, fill out, and email them a form before the sale could go through.


Not to mention, some websites won’t even let you on if they detect you’re using a VPN. That’s fun.


Now, I don’t know if these businesses are all truly concerned with fraud, or they are just being full-on a-holes because they feel they have the right to know everything about you when you browse their website. But no matter what the reason, using a VPN has caused all sorts of annoyances.


So a VPN does work to keep you from being tracked, but in my case it only works half the time...because I only use the VPN half the time I’m online these days. I definitely use it when on, say, a Starbucks wi-fi. But at home, I turn it off the instant a website starts acting weird.


What Didn’t Work: Switching to a PO Box


I wanted to not only hide my address online, but also keep it out of the hands of data companies, businesses that don’t need it, etc. So I signed up for a virtual post office box, then switched my home address to the PO box everywhere it made sense: my credit card company, bank, and so on. My theory was that at the very least, data brokers would have two current addresses for me, thereby diluting the certainty of their data at least a tiny bit.


The problem there is that unless you want to pay and drive to the PO box company’s local storefront to pick up deliveries, you need to give your home address to every online store you order from. Not to mention, you can’t have a pizza sent to your PO box.


Another issue was that I would frequently get ads such as credit card offers sent to my PO box, which I would then have to pay to have shredded. (I signed up for Do Not Mail lists, but companies you currently do business with are still allowed to mail you.)


Finally, it was a pain to have a delivery address that was different from my billing address, as I now needed to enter two addresses each time I ordered something online.


In the end, I closed the PO Box and changed all the accounts back to my home address.


What Didn’t Work: Ditching My Smartphone


Most of my random internet surfing occurred when I had some weird question like, “How old is that actor in the movie I’m watching right now?” I would whip out my iPhone and look it up right there, and then get sucked into other websites. So getting rid of my iPhone was intended to put the kibosh on that kind of internet usage. I also expected it would result in my seeing fewer ads, being tracked less, and giving away less of my personal data to apps.


I opted for the LightPhone II—a small, privacy-oriented phone with a black-and-white e-ink display that comes with the bare minimum: phone, time, and text. (You can also add a few tools like a podcast app and turn-by-turn driving directions.)


I loved, loved, loved not having an iPhone. But I didn’t love having a LightPhone.


The instant I turned it on, an emergency weather alert blared from the phone. The only way to back out of the pop-up was to restart the phone because the “close” button didn’t work. This happened eight times in the 45 minutes after I took the phone out of the box, all for the same weather alert. Not only that, but there was no actual weather alert in my area! Once the initial barrage stopped, I got periodic alerts over the next few days, and then they finally calmed down.


The phone continually dropped wifi, and I exceeded my 1GB data limit without knowing it because the device had switched to data.


All I needed the phone to do was text and make calls, and it did neither one of these well. The touch screen was super unresponsive, and the talk-to-text feature that I tried using to replace typing would insert a period every time I paused for even a second as I was dictating my texts—making me sound like a robot.


In addition, the phone started randomly shutting down once or twice per day, the sound quality was so poor that most callers could barely hear me—it was so bad that I couldn’t use the phone in speakerphone mode at all—and I would get "breakthrough" rings while I was sleeping even though the sound was turned all the way off.


Finally, a big minus for me was that the phone doesn’t allow you to silence calls from people not in your contact list, and I starting received tons and tons of spam calls.


That said, the support team was awesome. They helped me fix the wifi-dropping problem and refunded the extra amount I had to pay for additional data. They gave me tips for getting the screen to work better, though the advice didn’t work out for me. And...they let me return the phone for a full refund, even though I’d had it for a couple of months.


I’ve talked to other people who are thrilled with their LightPhone , so I think I just got a bum device. But I don’t feel safe being out and about without a reliable way to text or make phone calls, so I decided to give up and go back to my iPhone.


The great news is that by the time I did so, the LightPhone had helped me break my phone habit!


I locked down my iPhone as much as I could by setting privacy to the highest levels, turning on “content and privacy restrictions” so I can’t access Safari (which is impossible to delete altogether), and only keeping or uploading the apps I truly wanted or needed: apps for my bank, my son’s school and team chats, podcasts, the weather, a camera, photos, and Proton Calendar.


Honestly, the LightPhone was still worth it for me because it trained me to not pick up my phone unless I was calling or texting. Heck, even if I had not gotten a refund I’d say it was still worth it just for that. But  while this may be the right product for others, it wasn’t for me.


What Didn’t Work: Leaving Amazon


As part of my Disengage project, I wanted to, as much as possible, stop giving my time, money, and attention to the top five Big Tech companies: Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook. These gigantic companies use their power to lock us in to their products, kill off competitors, bombard us with ads, mistreat creators, and extract our personal data for corporate profit.


I had already quit Facebook in 2015, so no problems there. I still have Apple products that are perfectly good, and I don’t want to spend money to replace them until I have to. (My experiment with the LightPhone didn’t pan out, but  may experiment with another type of phone.) I’m proud to say I managed to ditch all Google products, from Gmail and Google Drive to the Chrome Browser and Google Search. (Yes, I realize Google runs like half the internet and I can never get away from it, but I did everything I could short of becoming a hermit.)


But Amazon!


I made a big effort to buy locally whenever I could and also to frequent smaller shops online. I navigated to manufacturers’ websites to buy products directly from them instead of from Amazon. I shifted a lot of my more mundane purchases to Walmart and Target (which I’m sure are simply a lesser evil).


But eventually, I had to decide how much inconvenience and extra cost I was willing to endure so Amazon wouldn’t get from me an amount of money that’s an infinitesimal drop in massive ocean of their revenues. For example, a medical product I needed—unavailable in stores—that cost $49 plus shipping on the manufacturer’s website cost $44 on Amazon with shipping included. I can afford to spend $5 - $10 extra out of principle, but not for every purchase. The cost of that principle adds up quickly.

Not to mention, I've become obsessed with a series of philosophical books called "Why It's OK." One of these is Why It's OK to Enjoy the Work of Immoral Artists, and it's easy to extrapolate some of the author's (convincing) arguments to businesses I have personally boycotted, like Amazon and Chik-Fil-A—making me feel just a little less bad for patronizing them. I won't get into details here, but if you're interested you can purchase the books...directly from the publisher's website. :)


All that said, I have still drastically reduced the amount of shopping I do on Amazon. I now have a list of shops, online and off, I purchase from instead of automatically heading to Amazon. When I need seeds or plants, I go to my local garden store or the Burpee website. When I need a gift, I look to a nearby business that sells locally produced snacks, jams, hot sauces, and salsas, or  buy unique gifts online from Uncommon Goods.


My Kindle hasn’t been used in ages, and I now get most of my books from the library, a local bookstore, or direct from the publisher or author.

All of this has only enriched my life and exposed me to creators and products I wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

More Things Worked Than Didn't

As I mentioned, my upcoming article on the products, services, and activities that did help me disengage from the internet—and from the businesses that are making it a worse place to be—will be much longer. Even better, most of the things I listed here weren't completely pointless; they may have had a few too many "cons" than "pros" for me personally, but they might still be useful to you.

Check out the more positive update...and be sure to subscribe if you'd like to receive an email when new articles, guides, and free ebooks go live.

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