How Much Do You Value Privacy and Security in the Apps You Use?

I tend to dislike relying on third parties to provide me with services I find indispensable.

If I can help it, I prefer having control over my own services, even if it means having a poorer experience than a flashier, proprietary solution might provide .

Staying in Control of my Mental Food Sources

For instance, years ago I used Google Reader quite a bit to keep up with news on the game industry, on blogs I followed, and more. It was a great service.

And then I imagine with the rise of social media my own usage dropped without me realizing it, so when they announced they were discontinuing it in 2013, I learned about it probably on Twitter.

There were plenty of tech-oriented news sites putting out articles on replacement services, such as Feedly, which I know lots of people recommend.

But I was curious about creating my own personal Google Reader-like site. It’s just collecting a bunch of RSS feeds and showing them, right?

Before I got too far wondering how to do it myself, I learned about Tiny Tiny RSS, open source web-based news feed (RSS/Atom) reader and aggregator.

Open source means I don’t have to worry about a third party disappearing or pulling the service for one reason or another. I also don’t have to worry about said third party collecting data on my reading habits.

It was years before I got around to setting it up on my own web host. In fact, I didn’t do so until last December. But now that I have, I feel like kicking my past self for not doing so sooner. It’s incredibly useful, especially as I can’t trust various algorithms (and the algorithm writers) at Twitter and Facebook to show me what I specifically wanted to see.

And the best part is that I am in control. I can backup my data and take it to another web host. I can use my own desktop computer to act as a server if I want. I can see everything without filtering or some company deciding that NOT showing me what I subscribed to is somehow better.

I just hope I never need to ask for support, unless I want to deal with the developer equivalent of the Soup Nazi. Reading through the support requests I did see when I was trying to figure out how to set up the software left a bad taste in my mouth. Yeesh.

But since Tiny Tiny RSS is open source, I technically have the ability to take my support requests elsewhere. Again, I have more control and more options.

My Any.Do Woes

More recently, I ran into a frustration with an app I depended upon to manage my todo lists. A few years back, a friend recommended the Android app Any.Do to me, and I’ve used it ever since.

It was intuitive, allowed me to setup recurring items, and showed me my items in the order I liked, separating things that are to be addressed today from the things of tomorrow or in the vague future.

I of course used it for one-off items. Maybe someone recommended a book to me in a conversation. I would pull out my phone, open up Any.Do, and add an item to remind me to look up the book later.

But the ability to set recurring tasks was a huge feature. I set reminders for mundane things like watering my plants every week or cleaning the litter boxes each morning. I used it for regular habits, such as writing a daily summary of the prior day each morning and using my evenings to plan for the next day. I even used it to remind me to write blog posts or update my finances.

At one point it started trying to get me to install their calendar companion app, but I was fine with my current situation, and I learned I could disable the reminder.

It also kept asking me to get the pro version, but as I had no interest in syncing between devices, I was fine with the free version.

And everything was fine. Well, mostly. It had a few minor bugs I got used to over the years. Every once in awhile, the UI would get glitchy. Sometimes the tasks would look like they were reloading on top of each other, and eventually I think there would be a conflict that would prevent me from swiping a task to completion or adding new tasks. Closing and reopening the app usually cleared it up, though.

The bigger, scarier one was when I would open Any.Do only to find a blank screen. My task list, the one that that I live by, was gone!

The first time, I had a moment of panic because, hey, free version, meaning no syncing, and therefore no backups existed. But then I not only closed the app but shut it down. When I launched Any.Do again, there was my list. Whew! Every critical bug with a workaround becomes a minor bug. B-)

So, I happened to see that Any.Do had an update in Google Play, and I went to check the changelog, and all it said was “Every update is a boost to the app’s stability, speed, and security…” Maybe they finally fixed the bugs?

So I update the app, and now I find out that the syncing feature of the pro version is required in the free version.

Required.

Now when I launch Any.Do, I see a screen asking me to create an account by linking the app with my Facebook, Google, or personal email account in order to keep my tasks and lists in sync across all of my devices.

And there is no way to get past this screen so I can see my list again if I want to avoid creating an account I don’t need.

I’ve learned that Any.Do is also integrating with Alexa and will have a chatbot to help you with your to-do items. I’m sure those are great features for people who like them, but I’m decidedly not an early adopter, and I think I prefer my to-do list app to be sans A.I.

TODO: Find Another To-Do List App

So the changelog lied, and now my choice is to comply and lose a bit (or a lot?) of my privacy, search for older APKs of Any.Do and worry about where they came from and whether or not it is safe to install them, or find another app.

I decided to look for another app, but I wanted to be more careful this time. I already hate it when seemingly simple apps ask for way too many permissions.

Unfortunately, almost all of the apps I could find that focus on privacy and limited permissions were too simple. Recurring tasks are almost never available as a feature.

Privacy Friendly To-Do List by the SECUSO research group would otherwise have sounded perfect in terms of limiting permissions and providing control.

I did find an app called To Do List & Widget. It had limited permissions, which boiled down to “it needs to read and write to files”, and it lets you back up your lists manually.

It’s only downside besides a UI that is somewhat less intuitive than Any.Do’s is that there’s almost no information about who made it and where it came from. It’s definitely not open source. While the permissions allow it to do only so much, I still found myself being a bit uneasy about trusting it on my device. And besides, what happens in the future? Will it continue to be updated?

So ultimately I settled on Taskwarrior, which is a GUI app wrapping the command line tool of the same name.

The underlying system is incredibly powerful, and so unfortunately I found the UI requires me to learn how to use it. Recurring tasks aren’t as easy to setup, for instance, but I can do more interesting schedules than what Any.Do restricted me to.

And if I ever do setup my own Taskwarrior server, I can get syncing on my own terms.

I was surprised that it requires a lot of permissions, but it boils down to the app needing to create and use an account on the device and needing access to the network to do the syncing. There are no in-app purchases or ads, and the source is available so I can build it myself and read through it to verify that nothing nefarious is happening under the hood. I also have the ability to continue updating it if the original maintainer disappears.

The user interface is awkward for me at the moment. Any.Do showed me my tasks for today, tomorrow, and later, and it even had a separate category for unscheduled stuff as “Someday”. A recurring daily task I completed would show up in the Tomorrow list automatically.

Taskwarrior’s default views are showing me everything, and while they are in date order, it’s not cleanly separated. Also, recurring tasks are automatically synthesized from the template task, and so I find I can have multiple instances of the task at once in my list.

Then again, these issues might be due to me not knowing how to use Taskwarrior properly.

What’s Important to You?

Some people might balk at the idea of investing time into learning how to use an app when a more intuitive one is available.

And that’s fine. I get it.

But I’ve been starting to value my privacy and my security even more these days.

And it’s not an absurd paranoia. Recently there was news about a popular makeover app with privacy red flags. Pokemon Go was a concerning app until they changed the scope of the permissions it required to run.

I already know that Google tracks where my phone goes, which means it knows where I go. I should really turn off the GPS when I’m not actively using the map functionality, in fact. It’s always disconcerting to see the notification telling me that it is using it because none of the running apps in the background should care where I’m at.

I mean, when I took a picture at my mother-in-law’s house during a party, I got a request to upload the picture and attach it to the search results of the nearby public park. Ick.

Artificial intelligence is huge these days, and with chatbots and intelligent personal assistants such as Siri, Google Now, Cortana, and Alexa, we’re seeing a lot of benefits in the way of convenience.

To get that convenience, though, we’re handing over our data to the people behind our devices. And yet, security is rarely treated as a priority, which means that even if we trusted our data to those people, it might also be getting to people we don’t trust.

And so, because I value my privacy and security, often it feels like my choice is to opt-out or roll my own solution.

And since everything is getting artificial intelligence integrated in, it often means tolerating third parties getting access to data more or using alternatives. And if I am going to use alternatives anyway, they may as well be ones I have the most control over.

Thank goodness for free (as in speech) software, eh?

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