Jay Little - Software Obsessionist
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The easiest way to figure the cost of living is to take your income and add ten percent.
Autocratic Internet: The Tyranny of Google reCAPTCHA
6/16/18 2:20:44 PM

So over the last year, something on the Internet has been really pissing me off. That thing is Google reCAPTCHA. This thing has been driving me bonkers for over a year and I'm pretty much at the end of my rope.

So let's start with a bit of background. Over a year ago I began to fundamentally change the way that I accessed the Internet on a daily basis. Prior to this change, reCAPTCHA was just a minor annoyance. So what did I change? I started to browse the Internet through an always on VPN connection that I setup using some extra hardware, pfSense and PIA. This box is setup with an always on connection to PIA and acts a dedicated optional gateway on my network that I can point any of my devices to so enable them to access the Internet exclusively via a VPN connection.

To be frank I immediately ran into problems with this. For starters there are a lot of websites which outright block traffic from known VPN endpoints. This includes pretty much every financial institution you can think of, most video streaming services (Netflix, Hulu and Amazon included), some online stores and even some unexpected things like Papa Johns Pizza (thanks for that Anonymous).

The good news is that this wasn't too hard to fix. I just setup an install of the Squid HTTP Proxy on my network and installed a cool browser add-on like Proxy SwitchyOmega (available for both Chrome and Firefox) and just kept right on trucking. But I noticed something else had changed. Suddenly I was getting hit with a lot more reCAPTCHA requests. But they weren't that big a deal, so I largely just ignored the change.

Okay let's fast forward to about three months ago. I read an article which provided instructions for downloading all of your Google account data so you could review it. Now prior this, I was concerned about Google but I wasn't actively going out of my way to remove all of their services from my life. To be clear though I had already switched from Chrome to Firefox sometime prior to this. In addition I had willfully decommissioned my Nvidia ShieldTV box with AndroidTV in favor of a device associated with services I felt less threatened by (AppleTV as I do virtually no business with Apple so correlation opportunities are minimal there). Finally I've been using Android phones with LineageOS installed sans Google Play Services for a few years now. In addition I long ago switched from using Google for my searches to DuckDuckGo.

Despite having taken all of these precautions, that data download changed my entire outlook on Google in a matter of minutes for the worse. Google had been tracking me and all of my online activity since the dawn of time. Every single Google search I had ever executed while signed in was saved. Every single Google Talk message that I had ever sent or received over the years was saved. Every single phone call I had received via Google Voice was saved. Every single You Tube search I executed and video I had viewed was saved. It was insane.

So what did I do? Well I deleted all of the data I could from that account and deactivated most of the services including things like GMail. Sadly I'm still clinging to YouTube and Google Voice. However I quickly realized that the danger here was still quite high as in order to use those services effectively, I needed to sign into my browser with my Google account. So for the first week or two, I would make a conscious effort to sign out of my Google account after I was done using these services. That was fine. But that's also when the real reCAPTCHA trouble began.

Before we get to that, I did manage to solve the Google sign-in issue by making use of Firefox's Multi-Account Container addon. This add-on might actually be the single greatest add-on ever created for a web browser. Currently there is no equivalent to this add-on available for Chrome and given the fact that Chrome is a Google application and that such a mechanism would directly reduce the amount of data Google could siphon up about their user base, I fully expect to never see an equivalent add-on produced for Chrome.

So what is this add-on? It basically allows me to split my browsing for sites that I designate into independent containers. This means that I can and have created a specific account container that is automatically used when I visit youtube.com and voice.google.com. This allows me to setup those sites to keep me always logged in knowing the client side storage driving those persistent logins can't be accessed outside the container. This means that I can conveniently keep using the few Google services I'm still stuck with and simultaneously reduce the amount of data Google is able to gather about me.

Now after making these changes, the number of reCAPTCHAs I had to solve and the average difficulty of them increased by at least an order of magnitude, if not more. There are websites that I log into for the purposes of paying a bill once a month that require me to spend at least ten minutes going through a very long and drawn out series of reCAPTCHA exercises before I am finally allowed in.

After doing some research, it seems clear that not being logged into a Google account on a permanent basis is the primary reason why I'm getting hit so hard by reCAPTCHAs now. It's amusing how reCAPTCHA has been billed as a way for web application developers to differentiate between humans and robots when in fact reCAPTCHA is actually a thinly veiled mechanism which helps train Google's own AI-like image recognition algorithms. It goes from amusing to downright disgusting when you realize it's also being used to force you to stay logged into Google services at all times.

I remember a few decades back when Microsoft was hit an antitrust lawsuit because of the disgusting way they wielded the power of their virtual monopoly in the Operating System space to shove their web browser down everybody's throats. Not only is this similar to the way Google is clearly abusing reCAPTCHA to force a reliance upon their privacy invasive services but it might actually be far far worse.

So what's the game plan here? I don't have one. One thing is certain: I refuse to give into Google's tyranny. My goal remains to fully divest myself of Google and every single one of their services as I have absolutely no reason to trust them to uphold my best interests. As far as I can tell, they are a plague on the Internet that is seemingly becoming worse by the day.

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