De-Googling Your Smartphone (as a beginner)
These posts collectively describe my digital privacy journey. Some decisions were mistakes in hindsight, but I want to show all the steps I took.
I began to feel the need for an 'in-between' type of smartphone, one that would limit my app use, reduce my dependence on Google and still allow for the essentials: banking, messaging, emailing, keeping track of passwords, note-taking and using the schools' parenting apps.
I had already begun to delete unnecessary apps but wanted to go a step further and see if it would be possible to avoid using Android and Google Play altogether.1
For a non-technical person, a painless way into de-Googled phones is with Murena. If you can afford it, a buying a Murena phone - or a Fairphone - with Murena's operating system, /e/OS, pre-installed is a straight-forward way to get your hands on a de-Googled smartphone.2 /e/OS is a 'fork' of LineageOS, a free and open source version of the Android operating system. A fork is essentially a copy of software, which is then tweaked, further developed and repackaged with a new target audience in mind. You may read about 'flashing ROMs' in this space; all that you need to know is that these are custom versions of Android that have been adapted to remove privacy invasive elements. The user normally has to install a custom OS themselves, which can feel daunting. E Foundation have lowered the barrier for less tech-savvy users interested in privacy by selling phones with a de-Googled operating system pre-installed.
A somewhat more involved approach is to flash a custom ROM yourself. Here, you could consult the e Foundation's list of /e/OS compatible phones. You could look to see if you have one of the listed models lying around at home, or buy one second-hand. There are two approaches here: you can either browse the list of devices e Foundation have created their 'easy installer' for here, or you can browse the full list of devices and work through the installation process yourself.
I went with the latter option and purchased a very affordable Moto G3, second-hand. I followed the instructions for installing /e/OS (complicated, I thought) and was really pleased to see my smartphone boot up with the 'e' symbol. Holding a de-Googled, working smartphone felt liberating.
Next, I installed two app stores (via the default /e/OS app store), namely F-Droid and AuroraStore. F-Droid (or Droid-ify) is a store for open source apps. It won't have all the standard apps, but it can be interesting to look on F-Droid first. My email provider Tutanota, for example, does have an app on F-droid. AuroraStore works differently; it signs you into Google Play anonymously, using a 'dummy' account, which enables downloading all the mainstream apps available on Google Play.
A third option is to download an app file (called APK) directly from a vendor's site and install it yourself. Here's an example of the Standard Notes APK download page. With this method, you do have to be sure you trust the source you're downloading from, as there is no app store doing any curation or verification for you.
Pretty soon, I found I had a cheap, working de-Googled smartphone that I could use every day. Later, when one of my kids needed a smartphone, I set up /e/OS on a second hand phone for them, and we discussed how a regular Android phone and a custom phone with /e/OS are different, and why someone might decide not to use Android.
While AuroraStore allows a neat Play Store login work-around, using the anonymised account on Play Store does mean you cannot download apps you previously paid for using your Google account. While it is possible to login with your Google account on AuroraStore, I just cut my losses and stopped buying apps on Google Play from that point on. Making a deliberate decision to stop using Google's commercial platforms also felt like a positive step forward.
I was able to use my banking app downloaded from AuroraStore, but its QR code scan function did not work. This was tedious, but a problem I could live with. For most payments, I just switched back to using a PC. Later, when my bank began to send warnings about my operating system, I moved to CalyxOS, which the bank app seems to have accepted, so far.3
/e/OS does not update automatically, so you have to keep track of notifications and update manually.
The biggest issue really is that flashing a custom ROM on your phone feels pretty terrifying the first time you do it, if you are someone who is not used to developer interfaces and using command line. The process is also not that straight-forward; while /e/OS's documentation is clear, there are many different steps to follow, and things can really go wrong. I would advise setting aside a good portion of time for a first attempt, and going into it with a patient mindset. You need to be prepared to start over, spend time in forums, and possibly 'brick' your phone. This is why I recommend starting with a cheap device; this way, it feels more like an interesting experiment rather than a stressful, risky operation.
You may find a lot of criticism about /e/OS in privacy discussions, but I would argue that, without e Foundation's helpful, low-tech-barrier messaging, I may have never been brave enough to take this first step, which opened the door to so many further steps towards digital privacy later. /e/OS is a good way in, and I appreciate their work.
Edit: After publishing this article and sharing it on the e Foundation forum, I received detailed and constructive feedback from several people there. It just further illustrates the positive approach within that community.
Current use and looking ahead
I now use CalyxOS, which is also a custom ROM, like /e/OS, but it allows you to lock the bootloader. This is something I won't explain in detail here, but it was a security problem with /e/OS that did bother me in the end. As it turns out, the bank app warnings were also due to using a phone with an unlocked bootloader.
I still use AuroraStore and Droid-ify, a version of F-Droid.
One of my kids uses an /e/OS phone daily and is just used to it: everything works normally, even something like Xbox GamePass game streaming. It is a great way to show that operating systems are not all that different in use, and that it is possible to experience digital life outside of the Google environment.
Rereading this in August of 2023, I realise I now need to use a bit more caution in recommending the AuroraStore. This is not due to any fault on Aurora's part, but recently, Google has been more deliberate in its attempts to block Aurora users from accessing the Google Play store, making the AuroraStore almost unusable at times. There are ways to circumnavigate Google's restrictions, but I'm finding Aurora unreliable at the moment. I hope it improves in the future, because without the AuroraStore, it would be hard to rely on a de-Googled phone for everything.
If you are someone averse to tinkering with IT devices, I would recommend just buying a Murena phone (world) or a Murena Fairphone (Europe only). Both have /e/OS pre-installed.
Otherwise, take a look at the list of devices e Foundation have created their Easy Installer for.
If you want to learn how to flash a custom ROM yourself, take a look at this long list of supported devices /e/OS can be installed on. I have found the process rewarding and educational.
AuroraStore, F-Droid, Droid-ify.
Here's e Foundation's white paper on DeGooglisation.
And here is a list of banking apps that work on /e/OS, though banks contacting users with unlocked bootloaders may be a more recent development to consider.
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While Android is Linux software, the versions installed on our devices are developed and managed by Google (see Wikipedia article.↩
I am aware of the issues around using /e/OS (see this discussion on Reddit, for example), but would argue that their beginner-friendly approach was what helped me take the first step towards flashing ROMs.↩
There is a discussion to be had about the importance of locking the bootloader, perhaps in a later post, but it seems banks don't allow their apps on phones with unlocked bootloaders, for security reasons. It should be noted that the Murena FairPhone does allow for /e/OS to work with a locked bootloader.↩