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Sunday 8 August 2021

Weaning Off The Google

 (Or, How I’m Continuing to use Google’s Products Without A Sense of Existential Dread)

My First Brush With Account Recovery Tyranny

Just over five years ago, my wife and I decided to leave Canada for South Africa, and with all the madness of the migration (after six months of being new parents with no support, we left in a big rush to be close to our family) it never occurred to me to ensure that our email accounts were all configured correctly for where we were going. When we finally arrived after two weeks of frenzied selling and packing (and deciding which half of our lives to leave behind) and two days of hard travelling, I thought I’d log in to check my emails.

Google detected that we were logging in from a different country, and wanted us to authenticate using our mobile numbers. Which had been disconnected the day before we left. As some of you may have had the misfortune of discovering, there are no human beings to speak to when attempting to recover access to a Google account, the entire process is automated and even knowing everything about your account (including your personal information, who you last communicated with, previous passwords, etc.) is no guarantee that you’re going to get it back.

We were very, VERY lucky that a really kind support agent of our Canadian mobile carrier was willing (and able) to reinstate my released number temporarily and read me back the verification codes, and even though we were forced to pay out the nose for that little service it was well worth not losing… pretty much everything that matters to a 21st century digital person.

A Reminder That It’s A False Sense Of Security

After successfully recovering our accounts, we put the experience behind us and made a mental note to sort out account verification before the next time we move. We have continued to use our gmail accounts as primary email addresses for a thousand other services, further entrenching our already-heavy reliance on a service that’s “easy come, easy go”.

What The Google Giveth, The Google Taketh Away

A few months ago I read an article on Medium, What it’s like to get locked out of Google indefinitely, and that sense of dread came rushing back as I realized that we still have absolutely no way out if we ever get stuck like that again. I’ve been a bit preoccupied with other things, though, so I haven’t really done much about it. Every once in a while I’d look at my task list, be reminded that we’re still at the mercy of a heartless, mindless system, and continue my day carrying just a teensy bit more anxiety than usual.

(If that article’s not convincing enough, please also take a look at Google has Threatened to Delete all our Google Accounts Over Nothing)

But I Like GMail!

Okay, here’s the deal. I like Google’s products. I like them better than other products. They’re good products. Good enough that I’ll ignore the data mining, the ads, even the fact that it’s Google providing them.

Honestly, sometimes I think the only two reasons I prefer GMail to any other provider are the fact that organization is by labels instead of folders, and their custom filtering is excellent. I guess that’s all any other provider would have to offer for me to be ready to jump ship.

Separating Email From Account Management

The first step to safeguarding all my other accounts was to establish one that nobody could take away from me. Fortunately, I already have a domain under my control, but then… a conundrum. What email address do I use to secure the account that manages the server that manages my email address?

Fortunately, that’s easy — multiple accounts can be used to secure that one. I signed up for a reliable, secure email address from a different provider (ProtonMail), so I at least have backup access in case either of them fails me.

Having taken care of that, I set up my own email address (which will be described in a separate post specific to configuring a postfix server — my post about Mail forwarding and piping emails with Postfix for multiple domains needs a bit of an update since I learned how to set the outgoing encryption, and even that isn’t sufficient for getting past spam filters), which now forwards to both of the other email accounts (my GMail and my new accounts email).

At this point, I was finally ready to begin the laborious process of switching the primary email of all my other accounts. It’s been an educational experience, with some services easier to update than others, but after investing a good few hours I believe I’m finally through the worst of it and have the essential services covered.

Backing Up Account Content

I’ve been considering the fact that while getting locked out of my accounts is one of my greatest fears, losing access to gigabytes of email history, documents, and videos wouldn’t be too much fun either.

During the course of the last couple of weeks, I was struggling to find an old video that I was *certain* I’d uploaded to YouTube, and eventually found it on an unclaimed channel. Google has a channel claim process, though… but it’s also fully automated. After trying and failing to claim it with my active accounts, I realized that it must have been attached to an old account that I’d deleted many years ago.

Did you know that a deleted Google account is completely unrecoverable? It is literally impossible to reinstate it, and the username will be locked forever so there’s not even a possibility of recreating it.

Over the course of this weekend I came across another Medium article, How to Quit Gmail and Reclaim Your Privacy. There’s a lot of good advice in there, but No. 7, “Don’t Delete Your Old Address”? Consider that a golden rule.

Personally, I have a terabyte drive (or two) that I use for backups, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not nearly as capable of protecting my physical disks as the professionals. I’m a big fan of DropBox, which has an excellent interface and syncing tools, but I’m not a fan of their pricing models. I’ve now resorted to uploading my backups to an AWS S3 bucket, treating it as cold storage only to be used in case of emergency.

For the low prices (for my purposes, anything from the standard storage plans to glacier will do), and the safety guarantee, I’m sold.

Next Steps

I’ve now set myself a regular reminder to download my Google data and upload it to my backup bucket. At this point, I’m considering this little adventure complete and I’m ready to relax and enjoy the remainder of our long weekend in celebration of South Africa’s National Women’s Day.

I hope this article has been helpful, if you have anything you’d like to add (or disagree with) please let me know in the comments!


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