Freeing my phone from Google

June 29th, 2019

Introduction

Phones are so full of ads that you don't even notice them anymore. Suggestions and notifications you didn't ask for, tracking mechanisms you don't even know are there, services over which you have no control. It's absurd how much smartphones, a large extension of our private and social lives, are controlled and monitored by private companies in largely hidden ways.

I believe that full control of the technology we use is essential for both ourselves and our society. So I have decided to get rid of Google on my smartphone entirely, and to use free (libre) software as much as possible. The setup isn't trivial, but once you get into it, it's a surprisingly good experience. This post should provide some assistance and recommendations, as well as my experience with it.

About free software

Free software is about freedom: The freedom to run a program for any purpose (0), the freedom to study and change how the program works (1), the freedom to redistribute copies (2) and to distribute your changes to the program (3).

These freedoms allow us to control the software we use, instead of letting it control us. They foster a collaborative community in which people develop what they think is worth developing, and share the results with all who benefit from it too.

Setup

Summary

The rough process of the most important steps is:

  1. Backup the data you want to keep
  2. Install an open Android OS like Replicant or LineageOS according to the respective guide for your phone
  3. Install the F-Droid app store

Android Operating System

The operating system is at the core of the smartphone. With a non-free operating system, we can't possibly be in control of what happens with our data and inputs. This is really the most important building block!

I have decided to use LineageOS. Its setup is easy and well documented for most usual smartphones. If it's available for your device, you may want to give Replicant a try - it's even more focused on freedom.

In my case, this guide was all I needed:

https://wiki.lineageos.org/devices/oneplus3/install

You can probably find something similar for your phone.

Google Apps

Usually after setting up a different OS, the next step is to install the Google Apps. These offer the usual Android features such as the Play Store, account management and synchronization and Google Maps. However, that also means that you're handing control of your phone to Google.

In our case, we simply skip this step. You now have an untouched, free Android system on our smartphone - it's completely yours! You're as much an owner of LineageOS as anyone else who uses or develops it.

Apps

Since we're not using Google Apps, there's no Play Store. We can, however, directly download APKs from the internet instead, which we'll need to do at least once for F-Droid. (You will probably be asked to give your browser the required permission to install APKs.)

These are the apps I use (in addition to LineageOS' stock apps):

App Store

F-Droid

Available from: f-droid.org

F-Droid is an alternative to the Google Play Store which only hosts free (libre) software. It's well maintained and easy to use. Perfect for this endeavor!

Browser

Firefox Focus (in Austria, Germany, Switzerland: Firefox Klar)

Available from: mozilla.org

Firefox Focus is a minimalist, privacy-focused browser. You search or enter an address, do your thing, and delete the session. Privacy features such as ad blocking and tracking protection are enabled by default.

I really like the distraction-free and focused experience which this browser promotes. It encourages getting things done and concentrating on that thing you opened the browser for.

Maps

OsmAnd

Available from: F-Droid

OsmAnd displays OpenStreetMap data. The OpenStreetMap database is extremely detailed, so you actually get much more precise information than with Google Maps.

It's also completely customizable which of this data you see. For example, you can focus on pedestrian roads and display subway and tram lines, but not bus routes, if that's how you tend to commute. If you don't care about buildings, the outlines can be turned off, as can any type of POI such as restaurants, healthcare, sightseeing, etc.

This makes it very distraction-free as well - you only see what you specifically want to see!

Note about location services

Without Google Apps, you should be able to use OsmAnd, but you probably won't see your location. This is because you need a location provider. Here's what worked for me after some trial-and-error:

  1. Install UnifiedNlp. I had to take the 'hard way' and install it directly to /system. This program basically dresses up as Google's location provider middleman, since that's what apps expect.
  2. Install Radiocells (available via F-Droid), a community-driven geolocation database using wifi and cell towers. Optionally, also download RadioBeacon and contribute to the database!

You then need to go to the location settings (Settings, Security & Location, Location, Advanced, UnifiedNlp Settings) and 'Configure address lookup backends', 'Configure location backends' (select Radiocells) and try the 'Self-Check' afterwards.

Messaging

Signal

Available from: signal.org

Signal is the most secure messaging app I know of. It's very tidy and intuitive, and it does exactly what it needs to.

Twitter

Twidere

Available from: F-Droid

Twidere is similar to the default Twitter app, but much more customizable. It also feels a bit more stable and clean.

Sidenote: Mastodon is an alternative to Twitter running on a free, non-centralized network which I found while researching apps. It looks very promising.

Calendar Synchronization

DAVx

Available from: F-Droid

Without a Google account, synchronized calendars aren't trivial to add. My university provides a CalDAV URL which I previously used it with my Google Calendar, however that's obviously not an option now.

DAVx is an adapter which synchronizes CalDAV URLs and provides them to your calendar apps. You could also use it with your own CalDAV server if you want to be completely independent and in control.

Reddit

Slide

Available from: F-Droid

Slide is very similar to Reddit Sync, which I used before. It has everything I need in a Reddit app: Different views and themes, neat and easily navigable comments, etc.

Hacker News

Materialistic

Available from: F-Droid

Similar to Slide, but for Hacker News. Customizable, intuitive and minimalist.

Limitations

While I'd like to have a completely free phone, for most people some proprietary apps like WhatsApp are unavoidable. Such apps can usually be installed from APKMirror, which hosts mirrors of APKs from the Play Store. It's very well policed and the most secure website for Play Store APKs I know. Another option which I found is the Yalp Store (available on F-Droid), which downloads and manages APKs directly from the Google Play store.

Very sensitive and/or niche apps are tricky. The proprietary netbanking app which I need to use with my Austrian bank account is one of those. I'm still not sure what to do with them. In the meantime, such services usually have a decent browser version as well, so I'm sticking to that for now.

Closing words

While the setup process was relatively easy to follow, unfortunately it's really not something I can recommend to the usual smartphone user. I think it's important to assist those who want to regain control, but don't have the technical knowledge, with this setup.

Another challenge are proprietary apps with little to no alternative. My netbanking app (including the verification app, which is mandatory) and the Austrian railway app are the two biggest problems for me. Not only are they non-free, they're also only available through Google. It must be made known to these companies that that is a problem, and that getting rid of this dependency is something their customers care about. Tell companies about these problems!

On a more positive note, my smartphone has definitely become more pleasant to use. It does exactly what I want it to do and how I want it to do. No more notifications or suggestions I didn't ask for, no hidden tracking mechanisms or services which work in hidden, possibly unethical ways. There's a sense of ownership and control again, something we've gotten used to not having on a smartphone. My phone is really mine.

You should try it!