What you give up, when you opt out of the surveillance economy

logo The irony has not escaped me: this is an article that is somewhat critical of Google; but, most likely, anybody who reads it will have found it because of Google. I'm also aware that Google's search ranking system is clever enough to ensure that nobody actually sees this post. Still, there might be a few people out there who don't use Google's search engine, so I guess it's worth a try. In fact, I'm not directing my criticism at Google, specifically: what Google does is ubiquitous in the modern IT industry.

Why would you want to give up Google, et. al?

I've become increasingly concerned about our advertising-focused, surveillance economy. I'm not going to explain why: if you don't already understand why this is a potential problem, nothing I say will convince you. Google, of course, is not the only culprit: the use of tacit surveillance to collect personal data to sell to advertisers is a widely-used business strategy: along with Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple have all attracted significant criticism. Still, Google stands out, because it has never made a secret of its ambition to know everything about everybody.

Android, of course, is one of Google's main data collection frameworks. You don't have to use Android, but most of the alternatives are equally intrusive. It's not just cellphones: many (most?) people use Google's mail/calendar/contact applications, on desktop as well as mobile platforms. Divorcing Google (and the others) means finding alternatives for these as well.

Rather than simply complaining, I decided to see whether I could evict Google from my life completely, and not replace it with something equally detrimental to my privacy. That more-or-less means using no software that is not fully open-source, at least on portable devices. It means finding alternatives for things like Google Maps which, frankly, is not easy. It means finding replacements for Google's email, calendar, contacts, and file sharing services.

None of this is easy, with Google so entrenched in my life.

Installing an open-source smartphone operating system

I'm not worried about my desktop/laptop computers, because they all run Linux exclusively (or CP/M!). Almost all the software I use is open-source. Although I did not know I was doing so, I took the first steps towards opting out of the surveillance economy twenty years ago, when I stopped using Microsoft Windows. No -- it's portable devices and smartphones that are the problem. I must point out, however, that there is a huge user base for Google's collaborative document platform (Docs, Sheets, etc), and for Microsoft's equivalents. It seems to me that there's no point evicting Google from my mobile devices, if I continue to use their web-based platform (and their search engine). There are alternative search engines although, so far as I know, only DuckDuckGo makes a selling point of personal privacy. For the collaborative document platforms, however, there is no alternative that I know of -- apart from sharing files around. I don't use Google Docs and the like enough to miss them much, but I know many people do.

Returning to the mobile/smartphone problem: looking at the few options on offer, I decided to install Lineage OS on my mobile devices. Lineage is derived from the same code as Android -- the open-source part of it. It's possible to install Google services on Lineage, and there's also something called 'MicroG' which is a minimal set of stubs for Google services. I don't want either of these, although I can see the advantages in fooling Android apps into thinking that Google services are available (and also the disadvantages -- see below).

I have to say, right at the start, that installing Lineage on my Samsung phone and tablet was a bear. A truly horrible experience. That's not the fault of the Lineage maintainers, who do a great job of building and distributing the binaries. Rather, it's that cellphone vendors just don't want you to run anything except the software they supply. Installing Lineage requires many steps, some of which require precise timing of finger-breaking button-press operations. At each stage, the device warned me of the dire consequences of the actions I was carrying out and, every time I got one step wrong, it was back to the start.

Irritatingly, my Samsung phone and tablet required different installation steps, using different sofware tools, even though they are of the same age, from the same vendor, and ran essentially the same Android. It's highly anti-competitive for vendors to lock users into their software but, frankly, few businesses are going to try to build a commercial smartphone platform that competes with the likes of Google and Apple. It's unlikely that we'll see state regulators getting involved to open things up. No -- installing a different operating system on an Android device is a miserable experience. With many devices, it may now actually be impossible. Happily, my phone and tablet are models that are officially supported by Lineage.

In the last year or so, I've seen people selling "degoogled" smartphones. These are generally second-hand units, and not the latest models. Still, it does suggest to me that there is a market for this sort of thing, albeit a niche one.

What does a degoogled device look like?

Lineage OS looks like most other Android implementations. You see a launcher screen with a range of widgets and icons. The built-in phone dialer, messenger, settings app, etc., are all reasonably familiar. What you don't see is a heap of vendor-added cruft. There are basic audio and video players, calendar and contacts apps (which don't yet synchronize with anything -- no Google services), a file manager, and that's about it.

Using a phone in this state is rather like it was about twenty years ago, before the inexorable rise of cloud services. All data is stored locally, and you'll have to take steps to back it up (e.g., on a memory card). Avoiding this situation involves spending money -- money you don't spend with Google's services, because you're the product.

Still, as a phone/messaging platform, a degoogled device works well enough. Most of the hardware worked on my devices -- fingerprint scanner, Bluetooth, wifi, headphone jack (yes, I won't be buying a device that doesn't have a headphone jack, so long as anybody makes one which does). One thing that doesn't work is the HDMI output. When I plug my cellphone into a USB HDMI cable, it crashes. Also, wireless charging doesn't work on my phone. To be fair, I'm not entirely sure it worked before degoogling it, and it was never supported by the tablet.

First steps to a usable device

I'm not a voracious app user, but there are a few apps that I use all the time. Without Google Play services, there's no access to the Google app store, so you'll need a different way to install apps. Many apps won't work at all (see below). Most (but not all) of the interesting ones that do work are available using F-Droid. Of course, although the F-Droid app is available from the Google Play store, with a degoogled phone you'll need to install the app as an APK file. Google makes a big deal of warning Android users not to install apps from any source but their store but, frankly, if the supplier is reputable, the app will be safe whether it comes from Google or direct from the supplier. Getting APKs of commercial apps from pirate sites is dodgy, of course; but there's no reason to avoid an APK from a reputable developer.

The apps available using F-Droid are nearly all completely open-source. Few are as slick as the commercial, vendor-supplied offerings on mainstream phones, but just a few are actually superior. The DuckDuckGo web browser, for example, works better on my devices than Google Chrome or any of the Samsung browsers that were pre-installed.

It doesn't take long to install a serviceable e-mail app (K9), a PDF viewer (MuPDF), an RSS feed reader (Feeder), and a terminal emulator (Termux). An Open Street Map app (OsmAnd+) is also available -- more on that thorny subject below. But it's not all plain sailing.

Appy ever after?

A lot of useful apps can be had from F-Droid, but what about commercial apps? I can really only see a few ways forward, which I list in increasing order of dodginess.

1. Use an open-source alternative from F-Droid. I prefer the proprietary Samsung email client to the open-source K9 app, but K9 is usable. 'Voice' is nowhere near as good as Smart Audiobook Player, but it's usable. But I paid for Smart Audiobook Player; the fact that I can't use it any more really hurts, even though it only cost a couple of dollars. The same for USB Player Pro -- it's the only app I know that can drive a USB DAC directly, and I use it all the time for playing music in my office. I imagine there are plenty of other commercial apps that don't have any open-source equivalent.

2. See if the developer of the app is willing to supply you an APK. Some developers are helpful like this, some are not. Some apps are free and/or open source, but not available from F-Droid (including my own). Mine, such as they are, are on GitHub; other developers will have different arrangements. It's unlikely, however, that you'll get the developer of a commercial, paid app to hand over an APK -- we all know where it will end up.

3. Spoof the Google Play store. There is an App called Aurora that can do this. But to use Aurora you'll either have to have a Google account that you're prepared to use, or try one of Aurora's built-in mock accounts. The latter approach doesn't really work, because these mock accounts seem now all to be blocked. You could create a 'burner' Google account, I guess. Personally, I want to avoid Google, not deceive it.

4. Get an APK from a pirate site. I don't see any ethical problem in doing this for an app for which I have already paid, but the security implications are considerable.

The reality is that for-payment, commercial apps are unlikely to work on a degoogled device. Even if they can be installed, they will fail when they try to use Google services to find out whether they have been activated by payment.

As bad as the situation seems, it's actually worse. Many closed-source apps don't work on my degoogled devices even when they do not require initial payment. Most of these apps are funded by advertising, so they refuse to run when they can't contact Google's advertising infrastructure. Some apps make use of Google services even when they don't need to. For example, Android has a location API that does not depend on Google services, and one that does. No prizes for guessing which one Google encourages app developers to use.

I used to use a free app for reporting my location as an Ordnance Survey grid location. It doesn't work on the degoogled phone because it uses Google services for location. I got around this problem by writing my own app, but that won't usually be practicable.

In short, with a few exceptions, commercial apps -- even those that are free to install -- won't work on a degoogled device. And if that isn't dispiriting enough, some apps that are free, and open source, don't work either. I guess developers, even of open-source apps, aren't testing on a degoogled device. Of course, some apps are unreliable even on a mainstream platform; if you're running a degoogled device, it's going to be difficult to tell whether the platform is the cause of problems, or something else entirely.

So what about MicroG? This is a set of stubs for Google Services, that apps detect as the real thing. I have mixed feelings about this approach -- I don't really want fake Google services, I want alternatives. Other than for advertising, if an app requires Google services, and gets an imitation, I just don't know how well it will work. This is an approach that might suit some people, but MicroG introduces further uncertainties into an environment which already has plenty.


So let's look at cloud and network services.

Abandoning Google means giving up their email service, which is excellent -- so long as you don't mind Google seeing all your conversations and plundering them for advertising purposes. An email service that supports SMTP and IMAP -- and so can be used with an Android app -- will almost certainly cost money. There are some free email services, that provide only a web interface; these may, or many not, work nicely on an Android handset. Your Internet service provider may offer such a thing.

Contacts, Calendar, etc

One of the main reasons I have a smartphone at all is calendar management. Lineage comes with rudimentary calendar and contacts apps, and they work well enough -- but on their own they aren't particularly useful. I want to see my calendar from any place, using any computing device. Also, I want it to survive my phone failing or getting stolen. These requirements more-or-less dictate a centralized, cloud storage location for calendar and contact data.

The standard protocols for synchronizing calendar and contact information are CalDAV and CardDAV respectively. It's possible to run your own CalDAV/CardDAV servers, but doing so reliably and securely, with access from anywhere, is fiddly. A number of commercial operators provide these services -- for a fee.

The Lineage calendar and contacts apps do not support CalDAV/CardDAV natively. Fortunately, there is an open-source app called DavX5 that does. DavX5 synchronizes external CadDAV/CardDAV servers with Android's native PDA framework. It also supports WebDAV for file sharing, with certain file managers. The stock file manager in Lineage operates well enough with WebDAV via DavX5, although the user interface is a little clunky.

I found that DavX5 was very fiddly to set up but, now it is set up, it works fine. Everything is synchronized as well as it was with Google services.

While I don't want to promote a particular service provider, I opted for FastMail, because it offers email, calendar, contacts, and file sharing all for a single subscription. I can use FastMail with my Android email app and also with DavX5, although it's awkward to set up. I can also use it with Thunderbird on my Linux systems. The FastMail Android app complains about the lack of Google Play services, but it works fine after this half-hearted whinge. Because of the integration provided by DavX5, I'm not compelled to use the FastMail app for email, contacts, or calendar, but it's actually quite nice.


Oh, how I miss you, Google Maps! I now use the OsmAnd+ app, which gets data from Open Street Map (OSM), and it works fine for navigation. However, its database of places is pretty limited. There isn't even a complete list of UK postal codes. Or even streets. My own street, for example, is not listed in its database (but it shows on the map -- go figure).

OSM map data is maintained by volunteers, so its pretty amazing that it's as good as it is. The app works completely offline -- you need to download map data in advance. However, this suits me better than the Google Maps approach of relying on online map data.

What OsmAnd+ won't do -- and this is where I miss Google Maps so much -- is route around heavy traffic. On the plus side, it isn't telling Google and all its partners everywhere I've ever been.

Vendor-specific features

It goes without saying that by running Lineage (or similar) you'll be losing any vendor-specific features provided by the device. This is usually a good thing, because vendor-specific extensions to Android are almost universally awful.

One exception, and it's another thing I miss terribly, is Samsung DEx. It's not a widely-used feature, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Samsung drop it eventually, so I was anticipating having to learn to live without it some day. Turns out that it was this day.

So how is life after Google?

Difficult, but getting easier. The least part of the problem is that I'm now paying a subscription for things I used to get for free. Of course, they weren't really free -- the price was just concealed from me.

I can't deny that initial set-up was time-consuming and fiddly. Buying a degoogled device may be an option for some people, although it's not a cheap option. But it's after removing Google services that the real work starts -- seeking alternative providers for Google services, and configuring all the integration that these require. It's really only after cutting the cord to Google that I realize how dependent I was. The work needed to find alternatives to Google services, and integrate them properly into devices, may be beyond the capabilities of people who haven't spent years working with computers.

On the positive side -- I am now ad-free. I never see an advertisement from an app on my smartphone. I still see advertisements on websites (sigh), but I tend to avoid sites that display a lot of advertising. My battery life is better -- I can now get three days of modest use from my phone, compared with 1-2 days with the stock firmware (and I'm using it in the same way). Total system-related storage is now about 1Gb, rather than the 13Gb that Samsung's Android eats up.

When I look at the file manager, I don't see a bunch of links to services that I will never use (OneDrive, Samsung Cloud...) My launcher screen is not full of icons that link to pointless vendor apps. There's nothing running on the device that I can't identify, which could be slurping up my data and sending it to goodness-knows-where.

I've learned about a lot of great apps that I would not have used before, because I would have just used the ones provided by Samsung or Google. I've learned how to 'root' my phone, because the tools needed to to this are the same as the ones I used to install Lineage. Best of all, none of my personal data is being distributed and monetized. So I sleep better.

On the negative side -- Google Maps. How will I manage without Google Maps? More generally, eventually I'm going to come across an app that I really need, that I won't be able to use. I don't use apps for banking, or making payments, or booking medical appointments, or gaming; but folks who do are likely to struggle. I miss USB Player Pro and DEx, but I can live without them.

Whether the difficulties of opting out of the surveillance economy are worth suffering depends on your assessment of the costs of remaining a product. Privacy is no longer considered almost a human right, as it was in my youth. Even back in the 90s Scott McNealy, founder of Sun Microsystems, notoriously said "You have no privacy. Get over it." And he really did say this -- he said it in my hearing.

He was wrong then, and he's wrong now -- privacy is possible, even in our over-connected world. It's just difficult to achieve and, like the horrors of climate change, most people don't even want to think about it.