November 4, 2021

Back to Google - after de-googling my phone

I’m an avid Android user for 10+ years. Like many other tech-oriented people, I’m not a fan of Google and its policies (a few reasons listed later), and I’m constantly trying to use alternatives where possible. I’ve used Custom ROMs for years (with Google apps), but recently used my phone for 4+ months without any Google service. The previous week I reinstalled Google’s factory image - here’s why and what next steps I plan to make to keep my privacy.

Why Degoogle

A large number of tech-savvy people care about their privacy, especially ones longer in the industry, me being one of them. I have a feeling people in other industries have either less knowledge about how their data is exploited or simply care less.

I tried switching to iOS a couple of times, and blogged my journey here. I don’t consider iOS more private than Android - even though Apple heavily advertises itself as such.

Google has a good track record of not leaking the data. But they’ve grown too powerful and have an enormous amount of data on a vast number of the population. Few reasons why I don’t like sharing my data with Google:

  • I’d prefer not to share my data with anyone. My data should be mine only and not exploited for ads and government agencies.
  • Using your account across multiple services (email, phone, work, youtube, drive) leads to a single point of failure. With Google closing your account you lose access to so many services.
  • Together with Apple has a duopoly on software for smartphones.
  • I’m using many of Google services. If it was one only, I’d feel better, but across multiple services, it feels Google knows too much about me.
    • Recent censorship of (mis)information primarily on YouTube and Search.
  • Politically leaning left. Results on YouTube and Search are left-favoring (for US politics, not sure about others). Searching on DDG leads to different results if you search for political topics.

Wikipedia has a good page on Degoogling and Privacy concerns regarding Google.

There are many communities about degoogling, like /r/degoogle and this GitHub repo. Also, other communities exist that are more Privacy focused instead of just degoogling, such as Privacy tools.

Degoogling

The first step I did a few years ago was replacing Chrome with Firefox and later Brave/Firefox. On my phone, I’m using Firefox Focus, and on the desktop, it’s either Brave or Firefox.

Then I set my search engine to DuckDuckGo. Google provides me better results, especially if I search for local things, but for results that aren’t location-based, I’m more than happy with what DDG provides.

Next I removed Google Analytics from this site as I don’t care about any numbers or details I may get from it. If you need Analytics on your website, I recommend either Umami (Open source, Self-hosted) or Plausible (Open Source, SaaS/Self-hosted), both providing much simpler results.

I consider all these small in terms of privacy compared to my phone and my Google account, primarily Gmail. I haven’t considered moving from Gmail yet, due to the perceived complexity of migrating my emails. I’m planning to migrate to Fastmail, but that may take longer than I’d like to admit.

Using an Android without Google’s services

I started using CyanogenMod and other custom ROMs long ago on my Galaxy S2 and later Galaxy Nexus. All of my earlier usages had one thing in common - I’ve sideloaded Google apps every single time. It never occurred to me that I should use my phone without Google apps - I needed my Gmail, Maps, and at that time Hangouts.

The first time I heard of a person using a degoogled phone was 6-7 years ago. A mentor of mine and a local Linux kernel contributor mentioned how removing Google’s services from his phone (Moto G) doubled its battery life. More recently I noticed that a good friend of mine was using the phone in the same way, valuing his privacy more than convenience.

And to be clear, the choice will most often be between privacy and convenience (and sometimes money - if you’re not paying for the product …), as most open source services are lacking behind paid/ad-based services in terms of design and usability.

A phone without Google’s services is usable, depending on your usage patterns. Here are a few of my observations while using a Google-less Android, some of them related to LineageOS:

  • On my Pixel 4a, battery life nearly doubled by using LineageOS without GApps. With stock ROM at the end of the day, my battery is at about 20-25%. With LineageOS (and no Google Apps) it lasted for two days.

  • Some of the notifications (namely Slack) didn’t work. It wasn’t a dealbreaker for me, as I disable some of my notifications in day-to-day usage.

  • LineageOS offers a few (security-related) features not found on Stock ROM that I liked. Encrypting phone’s storage with a password, larger grid for pins (from 3x3 up to 6x6), scrambling numbers on pin entries, and much more.

  • Image quality on Camera and the Camera app itself (speed, features) is much worse compared to Google’s Camera. That didn’t bother me too much, as unless I’m picturing a document I need to send to someone, at most I take a photo or two of my kids in a month.

  • On LineageOS apps would stutter quite often. This rarely happens on Google’s Android.

  • I didn’t set up email on my phone - but I’m sure using any email app that supports IMAP would do it.

  • I missed a few of Google’s features, again convenience over privacy. An example - when I get an SMS code, with Google’s Android it gets inserted automatically into the app, or at worst provides me a button to copy the code. With LineaogeOS you have to open the SMS app, copy just the code, then switch to the app to enter it.

  • F-Droid, the app store containing open-source apps can be used on LinageOS. Since I needed a few apps not available there, I used Aurora Store that serves as a very good replacement for Google Play.

  • Few apps were displaying a ‘Cannot use this app without Google Play service’. Turned out most of these were misleading, and after closing the modal everything worked as expected.

  • Navigation, the tipping point of mine. I’ve had OSmand+ on my phone and used it for navigating through woods while hiking and for my car navigation. It’s great as a tool for walking off-road and serves me much better than Google Maps. But when it comes to car navigation it’s terrible and nearly unusable. I had to use it on a road trip (2000+ km) and even in a metropolitan city, it was misleading me more often than not. There may be better alternatives than OSmand, and Google Maps can be used within a browser (but not Firefox Focus), but at that point, I restored stock Android as I needed Google Maps.

One month later I’m still using my Pixel 4A with Google’s Android. And apart from battery life and privacy concerns, the experience is far better compared to using LineageOS without Google’s services. As I’m not being comfortable with being tracked/listened to all the time on my phone, and reducing my screen-on-time is a goal I’m striving towards I’ll be purchasing a modern 3310 and using it whenever I leave my home. I still need a smartphone (occasional navigation, mobile banking, and having certain chat apps so that I can use them on the web).

2018 © Emir Ribic - Some rights reserved; please attribute properly and link back. Code snippets are MIT Licensed

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