Google Free…

March 17, 2010 at 19:10 | Posted in Life, Privacy/Security, thoughts | 9 Comments
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This was originally just going to be an “WooHoo!! I’m finally Google free…” post. However when I posted on identi.ca about finally becoming Google free many people wanted to know more.. and several people have responded to me due to my Blogging on such things asking for more info. This has led to a complete re-write of the original post to make it more instructive.

But First…… WooHoo.. I’m Google Free (fireworks here). I finally went ahead and deleted my Google account. (took a while to get the stragglers away from my old gmail account). But that’s it. I’m done. No more Google, Ever.

People that have been following my journey away from Flash, and Google and towards total software freedom (and enhanced privacy) Will be aware that getting Google free is something that has been in the offing for a while now. But now that I’m there I’d like to take a moment. and talk a bit about where the Journey has taken me.

The first thing I’d like to say is that If you can’t live without things like YouTube then this journey (at least to the extent that I’ve gone). Probably isn’t for you. But stick around and read on.. even if you don’t plan to follow in my footsteps you can learn about options that abound that you may have been unaware existed.

One of the loudest questions I have been getting is What did I replace “Google this” or “Google that” with. So, I’m going to make a list and talk about what I like and dislike about them.

Google Search:

I have replaced Google Search with a combination of Scroogle.org and IxQuick.com both return good results. Both offer https: connections to shut my ISP out of my searches. Scroogle is just a Google scraper and as such I may try to move away from it down the road. The further from Google the better. I’d go completely with Ixquick if it weren’t for the fact that they seem to be in love with javascript and that makes their landing page heavier then I like my homepages to be. However I recently tracked down their mobile start page and it is much lighter so I may just start there from now on.

I looked at a few other search options but none were as nice as the two above. Yacy is a very interesting project. A distributed search engine that isn’t owned by anyone. The problem with it was that the results it is currently returning weren’t overly useful for the grand and immense internet. Sadly they may be caught in a catch 22 situation. If more people used Yacy it would end up returning better results but it is hard to get people to donate resources (bandwidth for crawling etc) when they are getting questionable and limited results back. I’ll definitely re-visit Yacy in the future and see how the project is progressing.

Google Reader:

I got quite hooked on Google Reader. I’ll admit it was nice having one central place to go and read my headlnes. It however was not nice feeding Google such huge amounts of info on my interests and my thoughts on those interests. I replaced Google reader with an RSS reader built into my e-mail client claws-mail. It was quite handy having all my RSS headlines right there with my mail. It was also nice because I could set claws-mail up to read them as just text, no images, fancy formatting yelling at me. Just the info I needed and links if I wanted to delve deeper and get more info. I have recently purchased an Nokia N800 and am now using it’s RSS reader to read my morning headlines. Having it right in my hand is a huge plus and being able to read headlines without getting out of my toasty bed is a luxury I quite enjoy.

Google Mail:

This is the service that took me the longest to ditch. Not because I was overly attached to it or anything but because it takes a while to change all the listserves and forums so they now send to the new e-mail and then there was the process of waiting for all the stragglers to update their address books. even with all the time I waited and had the account sitting dormant with an auto responder telling people to use the new account I had a persons call me not 24 hours after closing the account complaining that they couldn’t send me mail Well I guess one last straggles isn’t too bad.

I replaced Google mail with Fastmail. They are paid by me and not by advertising. They offer many added features some of which I have yet to take full advantage of but one of the upshots of the services they add is a reducing of addresses people need to remember for me. Having my instant messenger address being the same as my e-mail address is just wonderful. Being able to have a web address that is extremely similar to the e-mail address I am sure will come in useful even if I haven’t made good use of it yet.

Fastmail is completely affordable. has been rock solid on the reliability front. offers pop3, smtp, ldap, imap, XMPP, and more so accessing things from my mobile device is no problem even thought I have my main laptop sucking down permanent copies of my e-mail via pop3. Their webmail interface is light and easy to navigate. and works well on light computers and without javascript. If you are thinking of moving e-mail providers I’d strongly suggest taking a look at Fastmail.fm

Google Docs:

Never used it. I found OpenOffice years ago and have never looked back. I also am opposed to storing personal info online if I don’t need to and for 99.9% of the documents I work on there is no sane reason for them to live on some anonymous computer, controlled by someone that isn’t me, in a legal jurisdiction that has less privacy rules. Do I sometimes need to have remote access to my documents? Sure. That’s what SSH is for. secure access to my home computer from any wifi hotspot.

Google Groups:

This one I never understood. This is primarily just a wrapper for the Usenet which anyone can access free, and much more privately with a news reader like Pan, or countless others. I read the few news groups that I follow with the usenet functionality of Claws-mail ( have I mentioned that I really like Claws-mail).

Google Talk:

I like to get my Identi.ca updates via Instant message. To that end I had fallen into using Google talk (well a Linux XMPP client hooked up to Google “Google talk” servers) to meet my instant messaging needs. When I switched to fastmail they also offer a federated XMPP server so it was a truly trivial matter to redirect my identi.ca updates to my new address. it was also quite easy to migrate other XMPP buddies. basically I just had to add them back once I had set up the new account in my XMPP client (psi). They’d get a one time message asking to re-authorize me at the new address and once they did that it was like nothing had changed.

Jaiku:

This was one of the first things I ditched, I was actually on Jaiku before Google took an active interest in it but once they did I bailed and bailed fast. One of the first things Google did was introduce a new “privacy policy” which I wrote about at the time because I was horrified by some of the clauses in it. Ditching Jaiku led me to the then very new identi.ca which has turned into a fantastic service, is open source, you can even run your own server is you wanted. The servers are federated so that people on different servers can still follow each other.

Gizmo5:

This is one of the more annoying moves Google has made. I didn’t use the Gizmo5 client as it was closed source but they had an very solid SIP backbone that I used for my occasional VoIP needs. I was quite annoyed when Google bought them out. I am currently transitioning to using VoipStunt. (not the software just the SIP backbone). I’ll let people know how this goes. One of the most annoying things about the whole deal is that Google has tossed Gizmo5 into a real state of limbo and so there is currently no way for me to officially cancel my account. I have completely discontinued using it but It would be nice to be able to terminate the account.

Google maps:

There are many alternatives to this some that were around before google such as mapquest.

Onto the Flash free front.

Several people have enquired about my now Flash free life.

Just to recap for those that have not been following. Due to the closed nature of Flash and it insistence on ignoring privacy settings in both the browser and itself. I decided a while ago to abandon using flash. For a while I was using Gnash an open source Flash software which does not suffer from the same privacy concerns. As time went on and with the release of Flash 10 and most sites now insisting that you have flash 10 or they wont talk to you I decided to totally abandon Flash. So now none of my devices have the ability to render Flash in any way. Perhaps more so then my move away from Google this is a step that may not be for everyone. Flash is currently pervasive on the world wide web and not having it breaks many things. (of course one could argue, and quite successfully, that Flash is outside of the HTML, and W3 standards and thus it is the web developers use of flash that is breaking things not my standards compliant browser.) As far as I am concerned Flash is the biggest bane to the world wide web rivaling even the once dreaded tag.

With the release of HTML5 that supports standards for Video streaming there is no longer a compelling reason for Flash other then using it to evade privacy settings.

So how is Life Flash Free. I think it is best described as, “a lot quieter”. There is instant decrease in blinky advertising noticed more on my mobile device as my main laptop had adblock. It is also a lot easier to focus on the meat of an article as the impulse to skip down and just watch the embedded video sound bite has now been removed. I definitely find I am having more time for other things as I simply can not waste time on Youtube or other Flash based distractions.

Does this mean that I can never watch video on the web until everyone has migrated to a proper (this means you Youtube… use Theora, not H264) implementation of HTML5. Not at all. It does mean that there are more steps involved and so I tend only to take the time for more “important” videos as the common and distracting ones are just not worth the effort. Using sites like tinyogg.com let me watch videos that otherwise wouldn’t work. There are also sites like blip.tv that offer video in other standards and I can often find the video there or an different video on the same subject.

Some things are however just plain broken. (I re-iterate that the brokenness is at the server end which is insisting on using methods outside the Web standards). A quick list of things that are borked without flash

Any Flash based video chat site:
ustream.com
snapyap.com
tokbox.com
chatroulette.com
paltalkexpress.com
etc.

Some webmails that insist on flash though many of those have a fall back to a more standard interface.

Any flash based game sites
popcap.com and many, many others

Most children’s sites are either crippled or totally borked. If your kids have “petz” you wont want to go Flash free just yet. A sad example of this is that if you go to sesamestreet.org without Flash all you get is pictures of Elmo decrying that “F is for Flash” and providing a link to the Flash download site. (a.k.a. now be a good little consumer drone and let us shoehorn you into this box)

Many miscellaneous sites. even some that one wouldn’t expect.

For me. life with out flash is enhanced. I’m less distracted, more productive and no longer is my web browsing polluted with noisy, blinky, irrelevant , crap. For me the reclaiming of my personal freedom and privacy is worth the annoyance of losing a few sites (that are flying well outside the web standards). But then one must bare in mind that I’m the type of guy that participated in the “ascii ribbon campaign” and still sends all his e-mail in plain text. (you know. so anyone can read it no matter what computer or e-mail reader they have). I would still strongly suggest that those without kids try going Flash free. You don’t need to uninstall flash to do so, just disable it in your browser for a couple weeks (I suggest a couple weeks because the first several days will be a painful awakening as you start to see just how pervasive flash has become). I’m guessing that most that can make it past the pain point of the change will see the same benefits that I have.

What flash thinggy do I miss the most.. The Stats graph on wordpress.com. But again I must say, not having it there has shifted my focus away from the numbers and back to the content. So even though I miss the thrill of watching the hits dance up and down. The loss of it has only improved things.

Going Flash Free (or Flash reduced Diet #4)

February 20, 2010 at 18:31 | Posted in Life, Privacy/Security, thoughts | Comments Off on Going Flash Free (or Flash reduced Diet #4)
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It finally happened today. I finally just got totally fed up with the draconian and proprietary nature of Flash on the web. The result of this is that I have decided to go completely Flash free.
Now, those that have been following my “Flash reduced diet” Line of posts, will know that I have been using Gnash instead of Flash for a while now.
A recent turn of events that has driven this decision is that many websites now REQUIRE Flash 10 or above, and even though Gnash is quite compatible with flash (up to Flash version 8 ) these websites refuse to talk to me. No Backwards compatibility. Also using Gnash I have been able to watch and learn that many, many, websites will use flash just to put up an image. The only reason to do this is that the websites wants to set a Flash super cookie and circumvent users browser privacy settings. As I mentioned before Gnash as a wonderful option to send all the LSO’s (super cookies) straight to /dev/null/ (a special black hole from whence nothing returns for those not familiar with *nix systems).
With the advent of HTML 5, which my browser supports there is no longer any NEED for Flash. (unless a website needs to try and circumvent users privacy). I therefore have decided to vote with my virtual feet. If a website requires Flash to a point that it will not function. Then they can forget about my viewership. I refuse to be forced to use a piece of proprietary software that goes against my beliefs (I firmly believe in the four fundamental freedoms as enumerated by the FSF), and most likely is there to remove my privacy, and in many cases my security (Flash has had several major security holes over the years).
Even though Gnash is trying valiantly to make a free (as in speech) version of Flash (thanks Guys) I feel the time has come for people to start abandoning Flash in droves. Insist on your right to privacy, security and freedom! Insist that websites start using HTML 5 and the free/open Vorbis/Thoera codecs (that means you YouTube). Insist that websites stop trying to set super cookies that ignore the browsers settings. Insist that you shouldn’t need the latest version of some proprietary software that wont work on many older machines just to view a simple web page that should work on all machines.
How do you do this? Uninstall Flash and anything that supports Flash (sorry Gnash guys), and when you hit a page that refuses to work with your browser either write the page owner and complain or lie and say your and iPhone.
That is enough for now. I’ll let you all know how my now Flash Free life goes.

Towards a Free (as in speech) system – (or Flash Reduced diet #3)

July 25, 2009 at 13:14 | Posted in Life, Tech, XO | 3 Comments
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It seems that one of the side effects of my Flash reduced diet is a desire to get away from all restricted formats. In looking back I can see that this journey actually began when I got my OLPC XO during last years Give 1 Get 1 program. As I progress on this journey I am stripping away more and more of my reliance on restricted/patent encumbered formats. I am also working hard to rid my systems of any Proprietary binary blobs or software with restrictive or anti-social licenses. I have cleaned up Ubuntu on my main laptop as much as I can and am now looking into replacing Ubuntu with gNewSense. The main stumbling block to doing so is the fact that my main laptop is my Asterisk/Voip centre and I’ll have to do the re-install at a time when there would be no incoming calls.

The thing that has surprised me is how little has broken. As I mentioned in my previous postings on Flash reduction things definitely do break, but nothing that I couldn’t easily live without.

My biggest concern was dropping restricted kernel modules as I feared that some of my hardware may cease to function. As it turns out I have been quite good at buying hardware that is fully supported by open source software. My next concern was that I might have trouble with Various media types but again nothing significant broke I can still watch the CBC news at night just fine. I did loose mplayer, VLC, and Avidemux that I had come to depend on but they have been replaced with other tools that do not have the licensing complications of those applications. I have managed to completely do away with the multiverse repositories on my main laptop.

My next challenge will be to do the same on the XO. This may be challenging as the XO is shipped with proprietary kernel modules for the wireless card. and I suspect the Video will be problematic. My Ultimate goal will be to get gNewSense on my main laptop and then work on porting it to the XO. It may well be worth the effort of porting to the XO even if the wireless doesn’t work as one can always add an external wireless card that is supported by Free software.

Flash Reduced Diet #2

June 22, 2009 at 15:32 | Posted in Tech | 1 Comment
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About a month ago I started my Flash Reduced diet. I must say, it’s a month on, and I am really enjoying the current state of affairs. Gnash although not perfect, renders what it does render well. As I mentioned in my previous post gives a lot more control to the user, including automatically saving video. I enjoy knowing that all LSO’s are going straight to /dev/null/ now (for the non Linux users in the crowd that is a black hole from which nothing returns). I’ve yet to play with the whitelist/Blacklist. I definitely would recommend Gnash to anyone looking for a Flash alternative or just looking to have a Flash reduced diet.

I am still pondering going totally Flash Free.. but as that would break a lot of sites I’m not (quite) there yet.

Flash reduced diet.

May 26, 2009 at 17:14 | Posted in Life | 3 Comments
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I realized today that I no longer required Flash for video conferencing (had a friend that wasn’t on Skype until recently). And thus I now had the chance to loose a huge proprietary blob from my nice open source system. So out goes Adobe Flash 10 and in goes Gnash.

Today is the first day of living with a Flash reduced diet on my main delaptop (laptop that sits on my desk all day). I have learnt from using my OLPC XO as my main mobile computer that life can go on just fine sans Flash. However after removing Flash from my main delaptop I find myself wondering how much my productivity will increase now that I will be less distracted by cute videos and the like. I’m not talking about ads they don’t exist on my systems thanks to things like “Adblock Plus“. I’m talking about all the “check out this cool vid..” and “Isn’t this cute (Flash animation)” that us netizens are bombarded with daily.

I can already feel myself being more focused.

Other benefits of installing Gnash. I have a LOT more control over privacy, and a lot more control over the Flash content that I do choose to watch.

I understand that a Flash reduced diet isn’t for everyone. It breaks a lot of the stuff on the web because Flash is way over used. That, however, is one of the reasons I rail against it. I hate being railroaded into using some proprietary thing just because it is popular with the masses, or because it make web 2.0 development fast and easy, and lets admit it one of the large reasons for Flash adoption is so companies can pollute your system with LSO’s which most people don’t know about or how to get rid of. Because in the eyes of companies deploying Flash.. Track you they must.

Updates….

October 16, 2008 at 15:58 | Posted in Privacy/Security | Comments Off on Updates….
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Just a short entry to let people (RSS) know that I’ve made updates to My “Flash ‘Cookies’, a hidden bane” entry and also put a link in the Side Bar to downloadable Flash LSO (cookie) removal scripts.

Enjoy

All About WebBugs

October 14, 2008 at 12:03 | Posted in Privacy/Security | 1 Comment
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What is a WebBug anyway?

A webbug or web beacon, pixel tags, tracking bugs, etc are tiny 1×1 pixel images (gif, jpg, png, tif, etc) (and increasingly Flash objects) that companies put into websites or e-mails to track where, when, and by whom they are viewed. On most modern computer screens a single pixel is very hard to see. Even if that weren’t the case 99% of the time these images are transparent so even if you have fantastic eyes you wont see them.

Isn’t this just done by evil hackers/Spammers?

There is a growing trend for large online companies to use these bug/tags to track people. This is partly due to the fact that browsers have gotten better at letting people block older ways of tracking you (cookies, ad banners, etc). So it is the next step in an ongoing techie arms race. Good techies trying to protect your privacy/anonymity. Corporate techies trying to track you so people can make money off of you, or off of people that will pay to know what you are interested in.

A prime example of this is Yahoo’s decision to start using webbugs.

Should I be scared?

Web tracking is nothing new, this is just the next step in the dance. So, being scared is probably over reacting a wee bit. You are perfectly justified in feeling concerned, annoyed, pissed off, righteously indignant, or just plain peeved. Privacy is a right and these folks are dancing around that as best they can.

What can I do?

Unfortunately there isn’t one simple, install this program and it will all go away, type thing you can do. However, this does not mean that there isn’t anything you can do. There are some definite steps you can take to protect your privacy and I’ll cover them briefly here.

E-mail:

I’ll start with e-mail as it is probably one of the easier things to protect from webbuggery. First set your e-mail client to never touch remote/online images. This alone will stop many webbugs in their tracks. If there is such an option consider setting your mail client not to render HTML at all. (this might be a bit drastic for most people). Definitely disable Java, JavaScript, VBScript, etc in e-mails. In this day and age having a scripting language active in your e-mail client is tantamount to leaving your keys in your car with the doors open.

Other things you might want to consider:

Digitally signing all e-mails you send (makes them tamper proof).

Sending mail in text only format (yeah, I know, no smilies.. but safer).

Digitally encrypt all e-mails so they can’t be viewed “in transit”

How to make Browsing safer:

Unfortunately since browsing means loading pictures, blocking webbugs while browsing takes a bit more work. Basically you need a system to block the undesirables. There are many options out there but all take at least some work to set up. One of the easiest is the Adblock Plus extension to the Firefox browser. It makes blocking undesirable elements in a webpage quite easy. The problem is that the webbugs are impossible to see so you have to use the “tools -> page info -> media” function of the browser to locate what elements are 1×1 pixel in size and then block them. Not all 1×1 pixel things are bugs. luckily the bugs are often easy to spot as they will come from a source outside the page you are viewing, or will have a fairly obvious hint in the URL like “adserver.”, “adscript.”, “track”, etc. Adblock Plus also offers free filter subscriptions which it will use to get block lists that have been generated specifically for it. The “ABP Tracking Filter (by rick752)” under miscellanious does a good job on blocking many of these webbugs

This is a bit of a pain in the posterior but once it is done you are pretty good to go. You will still want to check from time to time to make sure that there are not any new ones.

The same approach can be used if you have a router that supports a block list. Just keep adding the nasties to the list and soon you’ll be browsing much more safely. The one drawback to this approach is that some webpages try to use Java/Javascript to load up the ads/webbugs. Having them blocked at the router can sometimes make the page stall while Java tries to get the offending material but can’t reach it.

Other options exist such as Privoxy which is a software proxy that will clean a lot of this stuff up for you. My problem with a solution like this is that although Privoxy is very good at what it does I can’t be sure it’s catching everything I want it to.

The best approach, and the one I use, is a combination of the above. Things that don’t block well at the router I block with Adblock Plus and NoScript. I use Privoxy (and Tor) if I am going some place I am unsure about and definitely wouldn’t want tracking/spamming me.

In the end the decision of what to do about this issues is up to you. It’s your privacy, It’s your choice. Sadly many people feel their privacy isn’t worth the effort it takes to set these filters up.  The things I have talked about here is not a complete list of the options to protect ones privacy. Unfortunately going into all the options would make this document far too long and probably make it classify as a good sleep aid for most people.

Included below are some links for further reading on the subject. Enjoy.

Yahoo’s “Web Beacons”

Privoxy

Tor

Firefox

Adblock Plus

Peer Guardian

GnuPG – e-mail signing/encrypting

WebBug Articles:

http://www.leave-me-alone.com/webbugs.htm

http://www.spywareinfo.com/articles/webbugs/

http://www.securityspace.com/s_survey/data/man.200609/webbug.html

Flash ‘Cookies’, a hidden bane

July 28, 2008 at 09:57 | Posted in Privacy/Security | 22 Comments
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—- N.B.

I have made several updates to this post as I have noticed continued interest in it.

There is follow up to this in the comments below for those looking for a way to delete Flash cookies. I’ll be posting an windows bat file to do about the same soon. There is now a link in the sidebar to the right to downloadable versions of the LSO (Flash Cookie) removal scripts one for XP and one for Linux. I have yet to find a functional way to stop the cookies from being set as it seems blocking them seriously messes with some sites functionality.

There is another privacy bane on the net. “Flash Cookies”, or technically “local Shared Objects”. There is a good explanation of them on this Blog and also a link to the Adobe Flash Settings Manager which will let you manage them think you are managing them. These “cookies” are not cleared when you clear you browser’s cookies, are not stopped by telling your browser to prevent cookies, are not stopped by normal cookie managers. You currently have to use the Settings manager, or root them out and delete them manually.

you can go to the Settings manager and dong the following:

– Setting the default storage size to 0 (none) on the “Global Storage Settings” tab

– Unchecking “Allow third-parties Flash content to store data on your computer”

– Unchecking “Store common Flash components to reduce download time”

– Check “Never Ask Again” (some sites manage to ignore this.. but see below)

(bare in mind that I am draconian about my privacy, and would rather have things asking me for permission all the time rather then doing things without asking. You can, of course, set things to you own liking.)

— It has been pointed out that the above has little permanent effect as there seems to be little or no enforcement of the above settings and sites go ahead and store LSO’s even with the limit set to 0 —

– Bookmark the settings manager (you’ll want to come back to it now and then)

If a site is annoying about asking for storage go to the Settings manager from a new browser tab or window and use the “Website Storage Settings” tab in the Settings manager to tell the site to never ask again.

You can also use the “Website Storage Settings” to allow sites that you want/need to save data and limit how much they can store.

If ever there was a good reason for using NoScript, (which prevents flash and other things from running without permission) this is one. (of many)

— I strongly recommend the use of NoScript as an increasing number of sites have started using flash “web beacons” to track people (they hide a transparent 1×1 flash object on the webpage just so they can set an LSO (flash cookie) —

Good day, And happy and safe surfing.

Site of the Week #8

May 3, 2008 at 11:52 | Posted in site of the week | Comments Off on Site of the Week #8
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Bored? Slow day at the office? At the library but don’t feel like studying? Well then this weeks site of the week is for you. It is a wonderful site with a plethora of online flash based games to play. No sign up necessary.

you can find it at:

http://armorgames.com/

Go, play, enjoy

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