🔏 Privacy for Non-Fanatics

Striking a balance between convenience, cost, and confidentiality

If you’re anything like me, you been meaning to up your privacy-game as some sort of futile protest against our benevolent data overlords. It turns out, however, that the services they provide - often for free - are awfully convenient and crucially don’t require much maintainence or effort from their users. And for the low-low price of nothing more than your privacy, a pound of flesh, and your first-born.

For me, that’s a price I have become increasingly unwilling to pay, and I have therefore started to explore how to find a good balance between:

  1. Convinence - I don’t want to mess around with PGP keys regularly
  2. Cost - I am but a poor student
  3. Confidentiality - I want my communication and personal data to be private

🤔 Where to start

My primary concerns have been around the data I have been hoarding on my now abandoned Dropbox account, my photos, and my e-mail communication.

While it was easy to forget and hardly kept me up at night, the thought of storing all my files unencrypted with a third-party using a free account should be enough to terrify anyone. I was storing medical details, tax documents, payslips, and all sorts of documents that were really meant for my 👀 only.

Similarly the thought of Google oogling my photos was a bit disconcerting, innocent though they are.

Lastly, since moving to the UK where you can expect to communicate with your doctor, employer and the Government over e-mail (which is a horrible and completely inappropriate way to handle private data), I thought I needed to get away from GMail. In Denmark, any sensitive communication can and should be done via E-Boks and NemID, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a UK equivalent.

☁ Cloud Storage

Fortunately, as a student I get literally unlimited cloud storage through my university Google account. Less fortunately, it doesn’t really do much for my goal of increasing my privacy. Trading in my free Dropbox account with a Google one still leaves my data unencrypted and readable by a third party.

Enter Cryptomator

Fortunately, there are software solutions that are designed to solve this issue. A notable candidate for this is Cryptomator, which is open source, free, and fairly mature. Effectively it works by implementing a filesystem that sits on top of a regular folder (called a vault), and encrypts/decrypts your data on the fly. That way, all data at rest is stored encrypted.

By placing your vault in a folder synced by Google Drive, you get to use Google storage, but without having to worry about them being able to read any data stored in your vault.

The fact that a vault is nothing more than an elaborate folder means that you can store it nicely next to your other data on a cloud storage service, which you may not want to have encrypted.

Android

The Android client for Cryptomator isn’t free, but given the hard work that has gone into Cryptomator it seems only fair to throw a bit of money at the creators.

Crucially, it is a one-time payment and not a recurring subscription.

The Android client could still use a bit of work, and the lack of a Document Provider can be annoying. As a result, I still store some of my documents unencrypted, such that apps that work best with a Document Provider can still be used.

Luckily, the client is being actively developed and a Document Provider is on the roadmap

Alternatives

A notable alternative would be Boxcryptor, though this has a recurring payment model and is not open source.

Further, it doesn’t have a fully-fledged Linux client, which may be a dealbreaker.

What if we don’t have unlimited storage?

After leaving university I suspect I’ll end up transitioning to another cloud storage provider.

Sync.com looks promising with 1TB/5$/month and native end-to-end encryption. The only problem is a lack of Linux support, which may be a dealbreaker.

📷 Pictures

Now that we have mass-storage set up, moving photos from Google Photos to cloud storage is easy.

For viewing the photos I use digiKam, which seems pretty decent. It is hardly a show-stopper, UX-wise, but it is free, open-source, and OS-agnostic.

📧 E-Mail

For e-mail I eventually settled on just moving off GMail to the privacy-oriented provider mailbox.org.

Edit: I had poor experiences with mailbox.org and their support in particular, I really wouldn’t recommend using them. See my post about it here: Why I Fled Mailbox and Mailfence for Protonmail

While security is probably better when using ProtonMail or Tutanota, I wanted something that simply works and is based on the existing, widely used standards (even if these standards are horrible and inherently insecure).

With a custom domain the price ends up at 3€/mo, which is a bit higher than I was hoping for, but I guess I’ll just forego that one coffee per month and sleep soundly knowing that Google isn’t able to snoop through my mails.

It also has a bunch of other cool features:

  1. German based
  2. Eco-friendly energy
  3. Disposable e-mails
  4. Office suite

The UX is a bit old-fashioned and every now and then I’ll stumble upon something in German, which only serves to highlight just how much my German has deteriorated since high school.

Germany being Germany, it doesn’t have recurring credit card payments and instead needs you to ‘top up’ your credit manually 🙃.

💤 TL;DR

It is possible to get some ‘easy privacy pickings’ for less than 10$/mo, which I am more than happy to pay.

Jeppe Klitgaard
Jeppe Klitgaard
Physics Student

Just another enthustiastic polymoron thinking out loud.