2018 Provides a New Chance to Go on a Digital Diet

Marc Beckmann / Ostkreuz

The beginning of a new year always provides the chance for a fresh start. Some people go on a diet to lose pounds and get rid of old ballast. Others take it to the virtual level: they go on a digital diet. If you want to get lighter in terms of your personal data, Stefan Voigt has some good advice for you.


As a scientist at the German Aerospace Center, I know how well algorithms can process huge amounts of data. In milliseconds, they can detect patterns in seemingly unconnected bits of information and create profiles. Having been fascinated by the possibilities of the digital world ever since I was a teenager, I now have come to worry about how much data big internet companies actually collect about us.

By doing so, they know much more about our lives than they should. We take all kinds of measures to protect our privacy offline, so why should we live differently on the Internet? I have therefore decided to go on a digital diet, shut off communication channels, and disclose as little personal information as possible online. 

If you want to join him, you can take the following steps:

Step 1: Leave fewer traces on the Internet

Most browsers make Google their default search engine. But you can change this with a few clicks. Use only search engines that do not forward information to Google and that do not create any personal profiles. Many websites also allow third-party providers (mostly advertising customers) to collect information about your visits with the aid of scripts.

This way, these data collectors can follow you across several websites and record your activities. Use a script blocker in your browser which shows you who is trying to get access to your information. You will be surprised how many there are.

Stefan Voigt at the BMW Foundation European Table in Tallinn, Estonia. Marc Beckmann

Step 2: Take back control of your e-mails

Many people do not want to pay for their e-mail address and thus use a free provider such as Gmail. But what is it they say? "If the product is free, then you are the product." Free providers make money from ad revenue and from collecting data about their users. Therefore, I got my own domain and have my e-mails hosted with an Internet provider.

You don’t have to know much about technology, and its costs less than one cappuccino per month. I receive no pop-up ads, and I can be sure that the information from my e-mails is not used to create a profile about me. And if I have a problem, the provider helps me right away, since I pay for it and am not a supplicant like with the free services.

Step 3: Get rid of your electronic shackles

A smartphone is very convenient, no doubt. But it is also a digital shackle: It makes sure that you can be reached always and everywhere via e-mail, WhatsApp, etc. New messages continually keep you from focusing on what is going on around you or on what you need to do. Or from simply living in the present. According to a study conducted at the University of Texas, people's cognitive skills are reduced by the mere presence of their smartphones, because they think about their phones all the time. Plus, smartphones leave traces everywhere in the real world thanks to WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, and other technologies.

Businesses, for example, can find out when you were in their store. This is why I traded in my smartphone for an old Nokia mobile, and I have felt much freer since. I can be reached for work but only if it is really necessary: Sending an e-mail is easy, but people think twice about bothering you by calling.

And the good old mobile has another advantage: I don’t have to recharge the battery for a week or more. If I want to go online when I am traveling, I use a small, light-weight laptop; this way I can be online when I want to be.

Share if you like the digital detox!

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