De-Googling an android phone, some inconvinient truths
April 11th 2022 on Dušan's blog
Smartphones are a neat thing. They help you in your daily life, offer entertainment, allow you to keep connected with your friends and associates and are generally a marvel of technology in your pocket. What's less fun about them is that they're also the single most invasive surveillance device known to man.
After many failed attempts at escaping the clutches of surveillance capitalism I've finally had enough. I'd make a concerted effort at running a de-Googled system, no matter what it takes.
Round 1: Unlocking the bootloader
I have a Xiaomi Mi 10T. Xiaomi is known for allowing their customers to unlock their bootloaders. That is if you're willing to wait 7 days after applying for the unlock program, with every step of the way designed to make it really easy to reset the timer. Did I mention that it's also Windows only, tied to a Xiaomi account and that "you have to use the phone" during the waiting time, whatever that means?!
In the past stuff like this would be enough to make me give up everything, but not this time! I spun up a virtual machine with Windows 10, went through the hassle of passing USB devices to it and successfully connected my phone in fastboot mode.
Seven days later I finally succeeded in unlocking the bootloader. Just this step took way longer than it had every right to and it's worth considering the hoops companies will jump through, just to keep you from doing it even if they supposedly allow you to. Now I know, it's supposed to be much more secure to keep it locked, but damn it, it's my phone, I'll do with it what I please!
Round 2: Installing LineageOS with Micro-G
After much deliberation I decided to go with plain old LineageOS, more specifically a fork that includes Micro-G. (Setting up Micro-G on stock LineageOS is a painful and error prone process that I'd rather avoid if I had the chance.)
This turned out to be quite straight forward. I selected the appropriate images for my phone and followed the excellent instructions on the LineageOS website. The phone took about 10 minutes to initialize itself post installation and that was it. As an added bonus, this fork of LineageOS also includes F-Droid with privileged mode built in.
I wish I could say that it was all fun and games from this point on, but, as you'll soon see for yourself, the really annoying parts are yet to follow.
Round 3: Building infrastructure
As much as they're a horrendous privacy nightmare it's surprising how much stuff Google's services actually do on a phone. Some things, like missing APIs (and even then only a subset of them) are nicely covered by Micro-G, others, like contact and calendar syncing, automated file backups and many, many more features I had to find replacements for on my own.
Here's an incomplete list of services I currently host myself.
- Nextcloud with DAVx5 for contact, calendar and file storage
- Jellyfin, for efficient streaming of media
- Borg backups, completing a 3-2-1 backup strategy
- Pi-hole, because ads suck
- An entire E-mail stack (In all fairness you should probably not do this)
Round 4: Finding replacements for common apps
Finding replacements for common apps in this day and age turned out to be relatively simple. Again, here's an incomplete list of Google apps and their alternatives.
- Google Maps -> OsmAnd+
- Google Keep -> Quillnote (syncs with Nextcloud notes)
- Google PDF -> Pdf Viewer Plus
- Google Chrome -> Fennec (A Firefox fork)
- Google Play -> F-Droid, Aurora Store
- Youtube -> NewPipe
Similarly, here's a list of non-Google apps and their alternatives. Some are just free software clients to proprietary services, some are complete alternative platforms.
- Reddit -> Slide
- Twitter -> Tusky (Mastodon)
- Instagram -> Pixelfed
- WhatsApp, Viber -> Signal, Telegram
Bonus Round: Convincing all your friends to use free software for communication
The best strategy I've come up with is leaving the privacy invasive platforms without notice and telling your friends that you use $SERVICE_NAME. If you're really good friends they'll usually begrudgingly comply with your request. Others that have your number can always use it. It sucks, but this is the most reliable way I can think of.
Now that I've gone through all the hoops to get where I am, I really don't have any incentive to go back. However, it must be noted that the process is incredibly tedious and requires heaps of technical knowledge to pull off. This is not something your average Joe can do in an afternoon.
There are alternatives, /e/OS is a notable example. It skips having to manage infrastructure yourself. It has caveats, you're essentially choosing to trust eFoundation with your data, instead of Google, which is a totally valid compromise if you're less technically inclined.
Other notable observations. I now use my phone much less, which I consider a good thing. Smartphones are useful, but they shouldn't take over our lives like they so often do.