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Presenting HELIXIRx – sounds of the 80s with a modern twist!

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A change of pace as I take a little bit of time out of doing the usual progressive rock stuff. I’ve been composing some synthwave/synthpop under the artist HELIXIRx and have also had the role of the retro art and various collaborations. The debut album Authenticity is due October 2020 and features 14 catchy tracks. The album will be released via streaming services and as a CD. The analog version of the album will be given a ‘retro’ tape master and will be transferred to Direct Stream Digital and released later this year.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Trevor Horn. In my opinion, The Buggles were a very underrated act whose brilliance was overshadowed by their hit Video Killed the Radio-Star. The album Age of Plastic is in-fact one of my desert island discs. Growing up and loving 80s music and the culture and visuals that surrounds the decade; I found that everything Horn, and Geoffrey Downs touched was pleasure to my ears. As a huge fan of prog-rockers YES, my journey into synthesiser-based pop was always inevitable, but I never found a true outlet despite my long-lasting love for retro synthesisers and analog equipment.

As a result, it was only natural I’d enjoy anything that resembles, clones or pays tribute to that era.

With Covid19 giving me endless boredom as a bit of a joke I started doing some retro music with cheesy effects. Eventually it led to me becoming a bit more serious about making everything glue together perfectly. There are at least 40 tracks I scrapped in the process. Countless hours wasted until I decided I wanted to pursue the ‘good’ tracks further and the result is Authenticity.

Pre-order Authenticity and grab the first set of tracks instantly!

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HELIXIRx Soundcloud

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Open-Source Photography?

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Decided it was time to give back to those I take from so you’ll now find some photography work I’ve done available for free and commercial purposes. I will continue to upload once I’ve gone through my backlog of photography work over the last decade or so.

Check out the collection at Pexels

A Life Spent Online: Privacy Essentials and What to Look For

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I’m certainly not the messiah or anything more than an armchair privacy advocate, but to supplement my first two articles in DeGoogling my Life (here and part II is here) I figured I’d continue the theme with some suggestions.
I am the first one to put my hand up and admit that going from Google’s mail service to Microsoft’s isn’t exactly brave and courageous; they’re both big evil companies, aren’t they? It’s like politics. You sometimes must take the lesser of two evils.
Also, obligatory disclaimer: I have experience in the publishing world as the founder of book publishing company, record label and as a graphic designer. I have written dozens of privacy policies, terms and conditions, terms of service and disclaimers for web clients and for the sake of the flawed copyright system, all of which have been signed off as legally binding but I am not a privacy expert and I’m not a lawyer.
A couple of things to look out for when picking a service:

  1. Duration of service: You don’t want to discount any company for being new, but at the same time you want to know they’ll stick around and that if they close, you will know about it and have access to your data and that it will be destroyed when they liquidate. Most Terms of Service or Terms and Conditions pages will call this an End of Life, or EOL, policy.
  2. Mergers and Buyouts: Always check the policies for what would happen if the company was bought-out or merged with another entity. You want to be assured that you’re agreeing to a contract that states the business taking over will be forced to abide by the terms and policies you agreed to when signing up.
  3. Cloud content / User data: Is it okay to upload pirated content and pornography, if you’re not going to share it publicly – I’ll admit this is a weird one. I sought it not because I was going to be storing anything of the sort, but if a company has reason to terminate your service for such things, then chances are they’re using manual and/or automated systems to scan your content. Companies like Google are well-known for sifting through your uploads to find copyrighted works. Dropbox can automatically find copyrighted materials within your private account and prevent you from sharing them. Surely you don’t want companies going through any of your cloud-hosted content no matter what the method? Most of the time infringing content is to be removed after the copyright holder requests it. This does not mean that there is a mandate to search through user information to prevent it. In short: companies don’t have to oblige, but they do have to cooperate. Is going through your uploads part of that cooperation? That’s for you to consider.

My list is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve personally tested multiple privacy-orientated services and software over the past few years and so I can at least attest for them. The real issue is that unless there’s a data breach, or you do something illegal or even use a public forum to expel some sort of racist or objectionable opinions; you can’t be truly confident you are safe. I am not saying that this is why I compiled the list but the truth is I honestly don’t care if you’re trying to stay safe online to protect your information from corporations selling it or you’re a religious extremist who is convinced the world will end due to the rise of homosexuality and persons of other cultures – I still think you have the right to your opinion and privacy. For the sake of clarification, I am not endorsing cyberbullies, keyboard warriors, anarchists or anyone with intent to cause physical or emotional harm – I am merely saying that a truly free and open internet should be free from regulation and governments and corporations deciding what is right and what is wrong. I have a big issue with ‘anonymous’ services banning the likes of groups who create private chatrooms to express their bigotry, yet not have any issue with a chatroom that dishes out misinformation or pick on a group the company doesn’t see as a minority. Kinda looking at you there Reddit 😂😂
Read the terms and conditions and privacy policies of every service. I know it’s a boring list of mumbo-jumbo but a lot of the times even speedreading or scanning through the pages with page search just to see what the policies state about specific circumstances such as content they deem objectionable.
If you’re a Windows 10 user and you’re worried about any telemetry or data collection then Mirinsoft have the brilliant free portable application Debotnet which allows you to gain further control over your information. There are a few handy applications they have. CloneApps is superb for copying over your user application data to a fresh installation of Windows or another computer or just generally backing up the way you like your software. Again, all free and decent applications.
Opinions aside, here are some services, applications and add-ons I recommend you use, even if you’ve got ‘nothing to hide’:
Search Engines:

  • DuckDuckGo: Basically, a privacy-focused Google. There’s no tracking or targeted results and they aren’t an advertising company or a company that offers products they can sway you into buying. Ever searched for a product on Google or Bing and NOT been exposed to some biased results telling you about a product they have that answers your problems? Product improvement tracking does exist throughout the search engine but is anonymous and can be disabled. Furthermore, the website has a settings page that shows off some very customisable features that don’t have to be stored using personalised cookies. Advertisements can be disabled and any extensions for blocking potential tracking content can be used without prejudice.
  • Note: Startpage used to be great and highly recommended, but they’re now owned by Privacy One Group, who are a division of analytics and advertising company System1 who are well-known for not practicing the privacy principles they preach. They also purchased Waterfox which is a web browser intended to be a high-security fork of Firefox. I don’t discourage the use of the browser or search engine but take into consideration the company now behind them.

Email:

  • Mailbox.orgNot free, but still really cheap. They’re well-known and have a pretty decent reputation.
  • TutanotaFree, private, secure and easy to sign-up for. Has a great interface and mobile extensions.
  • Protonmail – Just like Tutanota, there’s a free account that is secure and offers an encrypted email account with mobile applications on top. Based in Switzerland and boasts development from MIT and CERN scientists. The interface is great but there’s a few essentials missing such as a calendar or IMAP.

 
Privacy Websites:

Browser Extensions: (Firefox, Chrome, Edge and Opera – and maybe Safari)
At the moment, I am using uBlock and DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials together without issue. You can set up each extension to function differently if you wish.

  • uBlock Originblocks ads, elements you don’t want to see and tracking servers. Uses community-built filter lists so that you can pick what you want to block. For example, if you want to block trackers but you are okay with certain websites displaying advertisements to monetise their content; you don’t have to disable the addon throughout the whole website. You can specify that you want to keep the ads but block the trackers. Their “manifesto” jab at AdBlock Plus is worth visiting. Free and open-source.
  • Disconnect – Amusingly, a privacy protection company that was built by former Google engineers. They offer commercial services such as VPNs but they have a free (or pay what you want) extension for Chrome, Firefox and Opera. The extension can be used with other blockers with little issue.
  • DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials – developed by the same folk behind the search engine. It’s a great light application. It grades websites and lists the trackers or potential concerns present. For example, it gives caskthomson.com the B+ rating and claims I have improved the site’s privacy by removing Google Analytics. It has yet to read my generic privacy policy.
  • Privacy Badger – Another automatic tracking blocker developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Facebook Containerif you’re a Facebook user and you’re using Firefox, this handy add-on by Mozilla will keep your activity separate from other websites to prevent your Facebook visits being documented and used by other sites. See Mozilla’s blog here.

If you are looking for a proper privacy-orientated browser then Brave is great. They’ve recently been listed as the most private. Strangely enough, they offer a rewards program too for anyone referring users – my referral link is here if you want to support me.
If you’re looking for a password manager, I can thoroughly recommend Bitwarden. It’s free, open-source, lightweight and works across multiple browsers and platforms. I was a devout Lastpass owner until a few months ago and the transition was simple. You can set it up to work with an Authenticator too. There are some extra features for $10USD a year which isn’t bad at all when stacked against Lastpass charging $36US a year. The premium version of Bitwarden has an authenticator which can make life a lot easier. I’ve been unable to get the Bitwarden authenticator in-browser code generator to work very well with a lot of the Microsoft applications and account services, but with Amazon it works as one would expect it to and it’s really handy.
I personally like Microsoft Authenticator, but haven’t really looked at any others hence why I don’t have a list of recommendations.
Want to go even further?
Tor (The Onion Router) and the easy-to-use Tor Browser will get you into the deep, dark, spooky web that the media bangs on about. As a tool for evading surveillance and censorship, it’s not flawless. Using a VPN and even Tails (a live Linux distro you can run from a USB drive or DVD) would be the best place to start if you’re trying to maximise as much anonymity as possible.

Photo by Scott Webb from Pexels

DeGoogling my Life Part II: Exploring Mountains of Extracted Data and Revealing How Much Information I Handed Over

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After deciding to dump Google (or as much as I could, at least) I figured I’d go through the export of my main personal account that I have had for many years.

I’m by no-means an online privacy connoisseur. As stated in the first part of my DeGoogling journal, I opted for Outlook as an alternative to Gmail and I am still predominantly a Windows user with multiple Android devices in my office. Whilst I maintain the view that Google has many great features that are hard to match, I know that they’re not the only company out there using our information for their gain.

Here’s a view of the archive structure:

It’s no surprise that Google had loads of information stored on their servers about my life and day-to-day activities. After all, I uploaded the entries and enabled them to do so by not taking better care of what activity I had set in the accounts but it’s still quite overwhelming to go through roughly 15 years of data and see what types of information have been kept all this time — most of which has either been removed due to expiry or data loss or otherwise. As far as I could research, I don’t see any automatic deletion process if not elected (which I describe further in the post) 

Every voice input into Google Assistant — both intentional and accidental — since 2017 set out beautifully across multiple folders. Some of these recordings begin BEFORE I am heard saying “Hey Google!”

DeGoogIing as of 26 Feb 2020 
@gmail.com 26 Feb 2020 
D Hidden 
My Activity 
Assista nt 
_J as of 26 Feb 2020 
ContrL 
Name 
gmail.com 26 Feb 2020 > My Activity > Voice and Audio 
ackups 
@gmail.col 
Name 
* 2018-10-24 DO 54 
* 2018-10-24 DO 54_D6 UTC.mp3 
* 2018-10-24_DO 54_07 628 UTC.mp3 
* 2018-10-24_DO i4_D8 571 UTC.mp3 
* 2018-11-02 232228 121 UTC.mp3 
* 2018-11-02 23 22 29 127_UTC.mp3 
* 2018-11-02 23 22 30 368 UTC.mp3 
* 2018-11-02 23 22 32 045_UTC.mp3 
* 2018-11-02 23 22 33 025_UTC.mp3 
* 2018-11-02 23 22 35 211 UTC.mp3 
* 2018-11-02 23 22 UTC.mp3 
* 2018-11-02 23 22 38 3S8_UTC.mp3 
* 2019-01-28 og 39 18 324_UTC.mp3 
* 2019-01-28 39 19 248_UTC.mp3 
* 2019-01-28 og 39 20 279 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-01-28 20 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-03 12 02 37 330 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-03-12 02 59 38 282 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-03 12 02 59 39 257_UTC.mp3 
* 2019-03-12 02 59 40 3S8_UTC.mp3 
* 2019-04-01 DO 21 39 8S3_UTC.mp3 
* 2019-u 01 DO 21 40 602 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-04-01 DO 21 41 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-u 01 DO 21 42 103 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06 25_23 33 46 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06-27 07 DO 41 gu UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06 27 07 26 38 302 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06 28 038 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06 28 22 48 54_460 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06 28 22 27 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06-29 02 26 48 270 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06 02 27 02 721 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06 29 07 22 16 278_UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06-29 07 22 22 262 UTC.mp3 
* 2019-06 07 23 21 927 UTC.mp3 
Tltle 
Customize 
Ttle 
Assistant Properties 
General Security Previous Version s 
Assistant 
File folder 
Contributing artists Album 
Voice and Audio Properties 
General Securty previous Veßions Custon•ize 
Sze on disk 
Containe 
Attribut es 
C \ as of 26 Fe 
7 16 MB (7,516.356 bytes) 
787 MB (8,253.440 bytes) 
344 Files. O Folders 
Wednesday. 26 February 2020. 124358 PM 
@ Readonly (Only applies to files n folder) 
Type: 
Location : 
Sze dsk: 
Conte-vs : 
Created: 
Advanced 
Re folder 
as 26 
236 ME (24.752297 bytes) 
265 MB (27.820032 bytes) 
1 *463 Res. O Folders 
Wedr,esday. 26 February 2020. 124358 PM 
@Read only Only to files füer) 
Hdden 
OK

One only needs to look through WikiLeaks’ Vault7 and Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks to realise the extent of the issue. But don’t listen to silly old me banging on about intelligence alliances like Five Eyes, for political leaders across the world ensure me it — as Foreign Minister at the time Julie Bishop put it — it saves lives!

Some of the data is simply anonymised rather than deleted. As per Google’s privacy policy under “How Google retains data…”:

In some cases, rather than provide a way to delete data, we store it for a predetermined period of time. For each type of data, we set retention time frames based on the reason for its collection. For example, to ensure that our services display properly on many different types of devices, we may retain browser width and height for up to nine months. We also take steps to make certain data anonymous within set time periods. For example, we make advertising data in server logs anonymous by removing part of the IP address after nine months, and cookie information after 18 months.

And:

For example, after you delete a specific Google search from My Activity, we might keep information about how often you search for things, but not what you searched for.

To be fair, you can disable the activity, or have it set that the activity is deleted after 3 months, but the defaults are something people often overlook. Google doesn’t make it any easier with its consistent warnings that by deleting or disabling the activity history you’ll essentially break every service you use. According to Google’s help pages on the subject, your data is deleted from your view and may be retained for a duration they see fit.

Google has a cleverly worded video that makes all this seem a little less creepy – though liking/disliking the video or commenting is disabled.

How your activity is deleted 
When you use Google sites, apps, and services, some of your activity is saved in your Google Account. Most of 
this data is kept until you delete it, like when you manually delete or set time periods to automatically delete your 
data in My Activity . Some data may expire sooner. 
When you delete data, we follow a policy to safely and completely remove it from your account. First, deleted 
activity is immediately removed from view and no longer used to personalize your Google experience. Then, we 
begin a process designed to safely and completely delete the data from our storage systems. 
Even when activity is deleted, some data about your use of Google services may be kept for the life of your 
Google Account. For example, after you delete a search from My Activity, your account will store the fact that you 
searched for something, but not what you searched for. 
Sometimes we retain certain information for an extended period of time to meet specific business needs or legal 
requirements. When you delete your Google Account, much of this information is also removed. 
Learn more about the data we retain and why .

Google News, Shopping and Applications:

Every article I have ever read via Google News and, more concerningly, every article I didn’t want to read is recorded. If I didn’t know the user of the account, I’d be able to perfectly handcraft a description of his or her political associations and beliefs, taste in music (even though I didn’t use Google Play music), preferred applications and even applications I have searched or viewed in the store. I had also searched for medication prices using Google Search and this would assist in painting the picture of the medication I may be on or have been on previously and the conditions I may have or had. Suddenly the idea of the masses referring to Dr Google gives another worrying prospect.

play.google.com 
Yesterday 
Google Play Store 
Visited Microsoft News 
9:13 PM Details 
Google Play Store 
Visited Microsoft News 
912 PM Details 
Google Play Store 
Visited Google Play Store 
9:12 PM Details 
i? 
i?
Not looking for an alternative now are we? Tsk. Tsk.

Further inspection into my infrequent use of the Google News aggregator shows they at least managed to discover what games, software and music I liked to know about:

Xbox Series X 
12:43 PM 
Read PSS leak hints at exciting new features the Xbox Series X won't 
get 
Details • Google News 
Read Buy Cyberpunk 2077 on Xbox One, get Xbox Series X upgrade 
free 
Details • Google News 
Australian Broadcasting Corporation 
12:42 PM 
Read Children among dozens injured after car drives into German 
carnival parade 
Details • Google News
Ah yes, so clearly I am interested in knowing what Microsoft are up to these days and if their news application is any good. Add it to the record please, Google!

I never really used most of Google’s features and yet the profile built around my usage of the few I did has created some interesting connections within the Google Takeout archive. Kudos to Google for allowing me to see it all, even though it’s my basic right as an account holder – but it’s what they don’t reveal (if so) that has me wondering now. Google’s “My Activity” dashboard likes to remind the user that “Only you can see this data”

I have never used Google Fit, yet there is plenty of data stored suggesting I used an application that must have linked to it from May to September of 2019. I use a Fitbit watch (which will be dismissed in favour of something a bit more private, which seems like a bit of an oxymoron) – as far as I can tell, the Google Fit data isn’t consistent with the information that Fitbit has collected during the same period, leading me unable to connect it to Google’s buyout of Fitbit, Inc which was announced several months after said data collection has stopped. Mysteriously though, I have never used any fitness tracking application or device other than the official Fitbit application and the Fitbit Versa, respectively. The .tcx files (which are essentially XML files) contain suggestions that Garmin are related to the data. Some basic research suggests Pokémon Go and its “Adventure Sync” could be the culprit but I ceased playing that several years ago. Your guess is good as mine, but it demonstrates the reach of Google, their affiliates and any applications you use that could be sharing data to Google.

Google Play Console:

My Google Play developer console folder has several applications and versions that I removed when I ceased using my developer account. Whilst they haven’t stored (or returned) the application files and source code, I see a history of application updates and application build attempts. Change logs and other information submitted is retained from 2015 – the date that I removed all the applications from my account and from download and relocated them to my Google business account.

Visiting the Developer Console reveals that there is absolutely nothing available to touch and that I am only able to upload a new application. There is nothing to delete.

I contacted Google and was informed I would have to contact their privacy team to request removal of the data that had appeared in my Takeout. Since doing this, it seems I am entirely unable to even visit my developer console. I am now redirected to a page that suggests I was banned from the service:

A screenshot of a social media post

Description automatically generated

It doesn’t stop there. I did another Google Takeout – and the data is still there. I contacted Google’s privacy team again and received a canned response a few hours later simply stating the data cannot be removed and that it was secure and anonymised as per their policies. From that, I assume that deleting my account completely will not remove the information stored. I suspect that intentionally getting myself banned from Google by breaking their rules will not help either. Luckily, I have nothing to hide and that all the information is useless to me and everyone outside of my life – but that doesn’t mean it is okay! Although things such as my email address and phone number are present within the files.

Some of the data Google have provided has not actually been unencrypted upon extraction. For example, my various preferences and settings .json files are filled with unusable information:

"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Encrypted" : 
"Your data 
"Your data 
"Your data 
"Your data 
"Your data 
"Your data 
"Your data 
"Your data 
"Your data 
"Your data 
"Your data 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. " 
encrypted and cannot be exported. "

I contacted Google and authorised them to provide me with the data that has been unencrypted. They can’t help with that apparently.

Furthermore, I noticed that some contact information was available in the “team_members.json” – this included a couple of people I had been developing applications with who had access to the account. It seems their data will remain too.

DEVICES:

Despite having removed the retired devices from the multitude of Google services over the years, it appears that some – but not all – devices are contained within the archive. From an old smart TV I logged into last year and subsequently removed from my account after realising I didn’t need the features Android would offer me, to a Samsung SII I had back in 2011; it’s all still here complete with IMEI numbers, Android ID’s, device serial numbers and even the IP address from the date of its last connection whilst associated with my account.

Information including first data connection times, SIM operators and applications installed are all featured within an extensive HTML document. If you visit Google’s “Your Devices” dashboard, you’ll see every device you currently have connected to your account. From there, you can locate a device (which is a great feature) and remove any old devices you are signed in to. You can also see the devices you have signed in or registered to your account on the Google Play settings page (though you cannot remove them)

But what about the devices you have signed out from or formatted for resale or recycling? Well on that same page you will find any device you have signed out of…in the last 28 days.

There is absolutely no mention of any device that you have linked that Google still holds the information to such as those I found in my data export.

I also found that I had a device that was replaced under warranty a few days after I activated it. The device isn’t shown anywhere in my account, but the long page of information Google has on it remains.

As of writing, it appears that there is no method to remove those old unused devices from your account. If you’re concerned about your security, change your password. If you’re concerned about the fact that Google has records of these devices on their servers, complete with information such as the applications you installed, networks used and so on then you can wait for the dormant device to be removed from your account automatically…but, as was in my case, this doesn’t seem to apply to all of them. Once again, it seems like Google will let you hide something from view, but ultimately continue storing any data collected. Google’s own support page seemingly glosses over that little fact.

Navigating to the “My Activity > Android” folder gave me an insight into how much application usage is stored. From opening the file manager and deleting some junk downloads, to opening an image application and viewing some viral videos; it’s all here and clear.

ADVERTISEMENTS:

This was always going to be an unsurprising discovery but as somebody who doesn’t exactly click on every advertisement they see, it was amazing to see the thousands of entries over the past decade that told me what I clicked, the URL it led to and the date and time I clicked on it. Even the advertisements I wouldn’t have visited intentionally – such as those that were thrown at me by an Android app – are included.

LOCATION HISTORY:

My location history contained at least 300 different locations and routes that I had used through the Google Maps application on my phone and any searches I had done on my desktop.

There is a pile of files in the “Semantic Location History” that give me insight into what was collected. Opening these .json files up in Visual Studio (code editor – you can use Notepad++ or the free Visual Studio Code if you want to dig through your own .json extractions) shows me the calculations (or “probability”) of my movements:

Also, take note of the “CATCHING_POKEMON” estimation!

" endTimestampms" • 
. "1491875661eoø•• 
"distance : 
" 95136, 
"activityType 
"confidence • ' 
"activities" 
PASSENGER 
VEHICLE" , 
lea 
lei 
le2 
" . • HIGH", 
"activityType" 
: "IN PASSENGER VEHICLE", 
"probability 
" : 97.9662884926075 
"activityType" 
"MOTORCYCLING" , 
"probability 
" : 1.2Q5732ß22513323 
"activityType" 
"WALKING" , 
"probability 
" : e.3132954679592573 
"activityType" 
: "IN BUS", 
"probability 
" : e. 3e78ß664486e2561 
"activityType" 
: "FLYING", 
"probability 
" : e.ue75897495566281 
"activityType" 
: "IN FERRY", 
"probability 
" : e.ø35434712858U8766 
"activityType" 
. "RUNNING", 
"probability 
" : e.ø22B526ß3eø444ß83 
"activityType" 
: "BOATING", 
"probability 
" : e.mge3593e819449126 
"activityType" 
"CYCLING" , 
"probability 
" : e.ø1328e3ge88940øg36 
"activityType" 
: "IN WHEELCHAIR", 
"probability 
" : e.øe6647288545427814 
"activityType" 
"HORSEBACK RIDING", 
"probability 
" : e.øe62178617816e81375 
"activityType" 
: "IN TRAIN", 
"probability 
" : e.øe516e346532e5296 
"activityType" 
: "IN GONDOLA LIFT", 
"probability 
" : e.øe32654619353888878 
"activityType" 
: "SNOWMOBILE", 
"probability 
" : e.øe261971182e728552 
"probability 
" : e.øe17se7452484154876 
"activityType" 
: "SWI%ING", 
"probability 
" : e.øe17øge186473923987 
"activityType" 
"SAILING", 
"probability 
" : 9.875131292191347E-4 
"activityType" 
: "KAYAKING", 
"probability 
" : 9.584742818715e1E-4 
"activityType" 
. "ROWING", 
"probability 
" : 7.234494378827893E-4 
"activityType" 
: "IN CABLECAR", 
"probability 
" : 4.8158776187366414E-4 
"activityType" 
: "IN FUNICULAR", 
"probability 
" : 4.1456343439149197E-4 
"activityType" 
"WALKING NORDIC" , 
"probability 
" : 3.9048354997378+-4 
"activityType" 
"SNOWSHOEING" , 
"probability 
" : 3.778723779745218E-4 
"activityType" 
: "SNOWBOARDING" , 
"probability 
" : 3. se19979991ß9788E-4 
"activityType" 
"SKATEBOARDING " , 
"probability 
" : 2.8481858728559216E-4 
"activityType" 
: "IN TRAM", 
"probability 
" : 2.14674722881397+-4 
"activityType" 
"SKATING" , 
"probability 
" : 1.5678673917836E-4 
"activityType" 
: "KITESURFING", 
"probability 
" : 1.26441577133064E-4 
"activityType" 
: "IN SUBWAY", 
"probability 
" : 1.1258999264873218E-4 
"activityType" 
"CATCHING POKE"ON", 
"probability 
" : 3.9748912619895684E-42

The specifics of vehicles I was potentially driving or passenger in are even noted. For example: IN_ROAD_VEHICLE and IN_FOUR_WHEELER_VEHICLE.

One of these location files was a whopping 281MB. If you’re doing this yourself and have huge files of mass text too then you’ll want to be using 64-bit software with a decent enough computer. Even then, expect some crashing!

That’s a lot of text. With word-wrapping enabled in Visual Studio, that’s 12,517,808 lines of text. To put that into perspective by using words, that’s a total of twelve million, five hundred and seventeen thousand, eight hundred and eight lines. All up about 17 million words and I’d estimate about 12-14 million of that is personal location data if I take all the random accuracy and prediction lines into consideration.

Again, in total acknowledgement, I could have stopped Google from keeping all my location history by taking a proper look at what data collection I had set.

Google Photos:

Despite never using Google’s services to upload personal photos – I was, for a time, a big contributor of professional photography to Panoramio even prior to Google’s purchase and later discontinuation of the product – but it’s the things like profile pictures, YouTube thumbnail uploads and similar that make up a folder filled with metadata even if you deleted the images. Thankfully, photos dating as far back as 2004 that have long-since been deleted are not present, but their metadata is. Within each of the 750 directories is the information for images I have emailed or uploaded to my account. Even figures for images within email signatures are included.

I don’t tend to upload photographs with geolocation data embedded, but for those that were uploaded and later deleted, the .json files reveal the coordinates that were attached. As of writing, Google Photos gives users unlimited storage for high quality photos and videos at no [financial] cost. I’ll let you conclude why.

With all these files and their information available to me in my extracted archive, I will show you what is contained in my online Google Photos account:

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated

That’s right. Absolutely nothing. Or well so I thought and so it would seem to most…

Investigation into the “My Activity” folder showed me the likely-overseen fact that closing a suggestion, swiping away an article on your connected device or accessing a website, application or viewing content anywhere via one of Google’s many services creates a log that tells Google what you are and aren’t interested in seeing. From a usefulness point-of-view, I entirely understand that – but when that information can be used to suggest things like, for example, you don’t care about what Meghan Markle has to say about the Royal Family – it paints a picture that is incredibly valuable to Google and their associates. It surprises me that there wasn’t a log of every event in my calendar that I had cancelled or postponed. Combine that with an entry in my location history and you could almost frame me for something in which I was not involved. So that leads me to my next paragraph:

This is pure speculation, but should that information be accessed by a hacker, law enforcement agency or other interested party; will they be able to label you a racist for not caring about what a politician had to say about neo-Nazism or discrimination of ones’ race? Will you be attributed as heartless – whether by person or machine – for swiping away that advertisement about the dying children in Africa needing your help? And will you find yourself facing the consequences of watching legal pornography or for spending a few minutes on a page where the author has expressed their opinion on something considered ‘dangerous’ to society?

Google’s Privacy Principles seem great. According to their Safety Centre, they vow to Respect their users and privacy, never sell personal information (the claim is that their free services are funded by relevant advertising) and empower people to remove their data should they wish. If “leading by example” is their wish, then we are in trouble. I am still in my early stages and I doubt I’ll ever be truly rid of Google – short of becoming a hermit who hides in the wilderness – but I have taken the early steps and it’s quite an interesting and redeeming experience. Dare I say it’s my first digital awakening in a journey of self-exploration?

As a business owner, it will be a little more involved to transition to other monetisation networks and discover the best of many alternative services available, but I know it will benefit both myself and any customers/visitors. I had previously moved away from Google’s Analytics system (which I used to understand where my visitors were coming from and how often) and I removed many of my published works from Googles’ stores due to concerns over customer information and misinformation and I am hoping to continue down that path.

I encourage you to take the first leap by removing yourself from one of your most-used Google services. I’m not suggesting you completely rip Google out of your life right now but consider the reality that giving Google less of your information will give you more control over your private life.

I think the first baby step is to download an archive of your information and see for yourself what the company is storing:

If you want to go through the data that Google has so-considerately maintained in a massive database then login and head to https://takeout.google.com/

I recommend setting your export to split files, as I’ve found that the downloads like to time-out and there’s a limit to how many retries you get before having to request another export. A lot of the files may be empty or contain no actual information. For example, if you have never used Google Chrome, you’re still likely to be given a bunch of files that don’t have anything to say – or you’ll get a lovely set of document that feature multiple lines saying “Your data is encrypted and cannot be exported”

Thanks for reading. I hope my experience offers an insight into the company and why I decided to DeGoogle.

DeGoogling my Life Part I: Moving emails, contacts and calendars from Gmail to Outlook

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It’s not me, it’s you…

Technically part one for me would have been moving to DuckDuckGo and trying to rely a little less on Google for services like maps and cloud storage, but this was the big one for me. An email account — well, actually several accounts spread across Google’s business suites, really — I’d had since the very early days of Gmail.

Earlier this month, after several years, I made the decision to remove hundreds of notes, business details, album details and lyrics and general information from Evernote over privacy concerns and my annoyances with the company limiting the amount of devices that Evernote could be installed on with their free subscription. I was unwilling to pay $120 a year for a bunch of text files simply so that they wouldn’t consistently be stored in a server by a company that has a history of surrendering data to authorities (not that I had anything to hide) and a company that would extensively delay removing your personal information from their systems when users requested. 

It was difficult and I found it really hard to replace it, downloading several alternatives and reading through pages and pages of privacy policies. Eventually I went with Microsoft’s OneNote. I’m not 100% converted but for now it will do. It’s worth pointing out that many services do not support migration from Evernote as Evernote allegedly makes it very difficult to leave painlessly. 

In 2004 I moved from Hotmail to Gmail  – which at the time was an invite-only service – and I loved the storage, spam filtering and overall use up until today. I realised that moving from Evernote was a bad idea, if I was to stick with Google. Several times over the past few years I have noticed that Google would ban me for periods of up to 24 hours due to my usage of enemy companies. For example, when adding Gmail accounts to both my desktop and laptop computers Thunderbird or Outlook mail clients, I would be smashed with security notices on all of my devices and then despite assuring my account was safe; I would still be locked out. This was bad for personal and business reasons as you can imagine. I was an avid user of G suite and Google’s business platforms for over a decade and whilst I enjoyed the “security” of such features, it was wrong to be shut out of my accounts – especially when I was paying for them. I also was caught out using “untrusted” authenticator applications on my Android devices. Microsoft Authenticator and Bitwarden would both lock me out. When I raised this with Google, they suggested that it wouldn’t happen if I removed the Google accounts from those authenticators and opted for Google’s versions instead. 

Umm…hang on a minute I deleted those photos years ago, but you kept the metadata? Err thanks I guess.

Edward Snowden revealed a lot of information that many refused to take seriously – either by ignorance, lack of research or “It’s okay if I have nothing to hide” mentality.  Gmail monitors your content, email messages and combines that information with what they find in the rest of your linked Google Accounts. Even Fitbit is owned by Google now with very little information provided on how that could affect your personal data stored on the Fitbit servers. Google produces a profile about you: what you are doing, what you look for on the web, what you’re watching, who you’re speaking to etc. and then uses this information to advertise to you and share this among their partners. 

I knew of this for many years – it’s what most “free” services do to maintain their free status, but it has certainly gotten worse over the past 5 years and it was quite scary to even find that using a password I had on my account several years ago was still stored and triggered a security notice that I couldn’t use the password as it had previously been used. 

I’ve previously complained about how Google’s automated (and sometimes non-automated) systems have blocked my music on YouTube from MY OWN profiles due to copyright complaints – some of which even stating my music was owned by companies like Warner Brothers and BMG – and I have also found that using Google Drive storage to send tracks to friends and music associates has also landed me in trouble. Music I have written, published and maintained 100% ownership of. When raising this with Google, I have been given generic responses and been told that there was nothing I could do but they would look into it. At one point I even received a copyright strike against my YouTube account – one that took months to get rid of! 

I can’t TRULY escape Google as I have several Android devices and required connections to the company but I swallowed the dread and decided to begin “DeGoogling” after reading this GitHub repository and considering the unlimited data retention Google had over my thousands of personal emails.  

I don’t see myself moving from YouTube and many of the services Google offer just yet, which is part of why Google is so successful at being difficult to move away from but removing information like contacts, calendars and emails is probably the biggest step. 

I personally chose Outlook after reviewing several different mailbox/calendar/contact services – even thinking of just running my own mail server or converting to using my business account emails. So why Microsoft? Surely they’re hardly better than Google for privacy? Well I do agree that they’re not exactly perfect – but they have been getting better. Their acquisition of GitHub and slow adoptions of Open-source contributions have proven that over the years after the bungles with Microsoft’s insane telemetry and data collection techniques when Windows 10 launched. In 2017 they pushed to change their image with a better source of what they were storing on their users.  

I am in no way suggesting that you too should pick a Microsoft service, but you’ll find with the “Cutting Google out of your life” list that I mentioned before, there are many secure alternatives that can do a better job and keep you safer in the process. There’s a good list here on how to keep Microsoft out of your personal life too. 

Some things to get you started if you’re navigating away from Gmail –and Google in general—: 

  • You can grab an archive of all your data through Google’s Takeout service. 
  • You can easily keep your Gmail address and have any emails from it forward to your new email by setting up Email Forwarding as described here. 
  • You can set up an autoresponder to let people know that you have a new email address (and even let them know that you’ll still get the email they sent as it’ll forward on) 
  • AlternativeTo is a really cool website that gives you various other applications, sites and services you can use with an active community giving their views on Pros and Cons of each. 

Here’s how my process went: 

  1. Created a new email address @outlook.com (I actually already had a Microsoft account, but Outlook lets you have a bunch of different aliases) 
  2. Set Gmail to forward any incoming emails to the new address 
  3. Installed Outlook on desktop, added Gmail account to Outlook Desktop. 
    1. Downloaded all emails from Gmail (because I wanted to have them all in my @outlook.com email account – if you just want to store them all on your computer, you can use Google Takeout) 
    2. Exported Mailbox to .PST file 
    3. Imported Mailbox .PST file to the @outlook.com email and synced to keep all emails from @gmail.com 
  4. Exported Google Calendar and Contacts and Imported via Outlook web interface (it’s worth noting that Google Contacts will export to a CSV file that it claims is for migrating to Outlook, but I had several issues with said file. When exporting to a standard CSV, however, I had less issues) 
  5. Set up all of my Filters and Labels (Outlook calls them “rules” and “categories”) that I had on Gmail again (as far as I know, Outlook will only migrate the folders, but will not set up any filters you’ve created before) 

Android Devices: 

  1. Replaced Gmail and Contacts (sync) with Bluemail which uses ActiveSync 
  2. Installed Outlook for its calendar and calendar widgets which operate in almost the exact same way that the pre-installed Google Calendar application does. 
  3. Cleared the cache and data of the Gmail and Calendar applications (and while I was there I denied the app its required permissions) 

So what next? Well I use Firefox with a bunch of handy extensions such as uBlock, DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials and EFF Privacy Badger but I occasionally have to resort to Google Chrome for various reasons, so that can be next to get the boot.  

The most irritating part will obviously be going through all of my accounts and changing the email address from my Gmail to my Outlook – but it’s satisfying to know that the shift wasn’t as difficult as I thought. I would recommend at least an afternoon to do it if you’re migrating like I did and attempting to maintain all of your data in your new account. 

Overall, the divorce was something I feel I should have done a while ago. Sorry Google, but unless you take a good look at yourself and care a little more for the privacy of your loyal users, I can’t see folk concerned like I was sticking around for much longer regardless of the monopoly you have. 

 I successfully managed to keep all of the emails from my business  accounts (that were running through Gsuite) by using Google Takeout then  importing the .mbox files into Thunderbird and using the add-on ImportExportTools  to export all of the emails as .eml files. This way I could simply drag  them all to the new accounts! Roughly 39000 emails are now backed up as  well as available in my accounts! 

Checking in!

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A photo of Stanley, just for attention. There was really nothing else one could put here.

It has been a while since I have been this busy (a.k.a not being a lazy shit)

I’ve been designing and working on a desktop/mobile application which will be revealed soon. I’ve also finally decided to push forward with the second album – the sequel to Surviving on Borrowed Time. I had written and recorded last year – and now the completed (in my opinion) tracks are off to Alan at IvoryFlyer in the Isle of Wight. I think he did a great job of the last release so I have entrusted him to take on the sequel as producer this time around rather than just mixing and mastering.

It’s a heavy album. That’s all I can really think of in terms of description.

The support has been incredible from everyone around the world. There are people listening in places I never dreamed of reaching and I’ve received some really cool feedback. I’m far from being known by the prog rock community, but those who have listened, purchased or pirated and contacted me have given me plenty of inspiration to keep going with the concept.

I’m also currently writing a screenplay for a video game that is in progress. Something I haven’t done before. It’s good to experiment with every little adventure.

Take care!

Grab the expanded artbook with SURVIVING ON BORROWED TIME DOOMSDAY EDITION

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AVAILABLE NOW EXCLUSIVE TO BANDCAMP

A huge release that not only includes the full album, instrumentals and mono mixes but also sheet music and an expanded digital artbook!

AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRES 2020: SAFE CHARITY MIX

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DOWNLOAD AND DONATE HERE > https://caskcamp.bandcamp.com/track/safe-2020-australian-fires-mix-all-proceeds-to-charity

I wrote Safe in December of 2018 whilst recording in Queensland. Fires were raging in Central QLD and with Surviving on Borrowed Time a concept album about destruction, I thought of how difficult it must have been for those in the state and how irritating it was (to me at least) that everyone was using the devastation to vent their political blames. I personally have no educated opinion on climate change and believe that a disaster is a disaster – regardless of the cause. People had lost everything they had. There was even a tragic story of a QLD undertaker leaving the body of a stillborn child on the roof of his vehicle, preoccupied by the events that were consuming the state.

I considered how horrible it must be to feel safe, but lose it all and so it only makes sense that I dedicate a song inspired by the Australian bushfires, the firefighters, wildlife volunteers and those who have “nothing more to take” to a selection of reputable charity organisations.

I have friends who work hard to save the homes of total strangers during such crucial times and I am far too fortunate to truly know what it is like to be ensnared in a catastrophe of this scale.

I believe money raised is not a competition or an achievement that should be boasted about and being a small player, I don’t expect to raise millions but every tiny bit counts.

This new mix and recording of Safe was made possibly by Alan L. Williamson at IvoryFlyer Studios in the United Kingdom who generously donated his studio time.

All proceeds from the sale of the single Safe on Bandcamp will go directly to OzHarvest who will provide food for those affected by the fires and droughts across the country, National Bushfire Disaster Appeal, and the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund 2020 which will provide much needed veterinary assistance.

The single is priced at 2 Australian dollars and you will have the opportunity to pay more for it should you wish to.

Don’t want to buy the single?

That’s fine; here are some links to trusted organisations you can donate to:

Bushfire and disaster appeals  

Firefighters

Wildlife