Reducing the Number of Apps on Your Smartphone
These posts describe my digital privacy journey. Some decisions were mistakes in hindsight, but I want to show all the steps I took.
A friend who works in IT security told me that one of the best ways to protect your data is to reduce the number of apps installed on your phone.
According to my friend, with every new app you install, you introduce new 'unknowns' to your phone. We don't know what exactly these apps do behind the scenes, or who they send data to. We also don't know how many additional third parties the apps communicate with. This creates a complex and tangled web of the involvement of companies and their software tools on your device, increasing your risk of privacy breaches.
I went through every app on my phone and asked myself whether or not it was necessary. I came to the conclusion that any app related to a subscription, social media account or shop was not essential, so I deleted Goodreads, LinkedIn, IMDB and store apps; these services can all be accessed from my desktop PC. Inadvertently, the process of deleting apps helped me discover digital minimalism. For many apps and services, the sense of urgency is an illusion. Updating your reading progress can easily wait until the evening.
I discovered the Simple Mobile Tools, which shun the use of psychologically manipulative tricks (bright colours, notifications) to discourage addiction and I installed their clock, keyboard and photo apps.
All your communication happens through your phone's virtual keyboard. While some keyboard apps have clever algorithms that can learn your writing style and predict with accuracy, you should be extra careful about choosing your keyboard app. This eventually led me to learn about Free Open Source apps and the F-Droid app store, which I will write about in a future post.
On Android many completely unnecessary apps (driving apps, for me) are baked into the operating system; a normal user cannot delete them. I learned how to root my phone, which enabled me to delete unwanted apps. However, with this approach, you need to know what you are doing. I deleted something essential by accident, which led to endless error messages and basically broke the phone. This experience eventually led me to explore alternative smartphone operating systems, which I cover here.
I tried factory-resetting my phone and setting it up Android with a ‘dud’ Gmail account, but then realised I needed my regular Gmail login to access my purchased apps in the app store.
I experimented with minimalist launcher apps, which add an extra layer to prevent addiction. One launcher app forces you to limit your use to five apps, and I tried the Simple Launcher tool. In the end, I felt these extra layers were just self-imposed parental control tools which you can easily circumnavigate, so I reverted back to the normal launcher.
Using a government ID app and banking apps are counter to the preservation of privacy, but the workarounds to not having them are so clunky and time-consuming that I have decided to compromise here. (See "Threat Modeling" link below).
Similarly, apps used by schools to communicate with parents are often not privacy-preserving at all, but I don't feel I have a choice here, as communications from school are important and sometimes urgent.
Current use and looking ahead
These are the apps that remain on my phone today:
- a privacy-preserving messenger app (Signal)
- a podcast feed app
- a music streaming app
- a radio app
- banking apps
- one ID app
- standard apps (calculator, calendar, clock, etc.)
- a privacy-protecting browser
a note-taking app(see Updates)
- a privacy-preserving keyboard app
- a meditation app
- school platform apps
- a password management app
- a cloud app
- an open source maps app
I have taken further steps towards digital privacy on my phone since, and currently use a Google Pixel phone with CalyxOS. Ironically, Google's own phones provide the best way to remove invasive software from your life. I will describe how I got to that point in future "Phone Journey" posts.
Deciding which apps are essential will vary per individual. I encourage being a bit ruthless with yourself.
Check out Simple Mobile Tools for apps that encourage digital minimalism. They now also sell their own private Simple Phone
The Slim Launcher on the F-Droid app store is an example of a digital minimalism launcher.
While I mention Goodreads above, I have since deleted that account and I now use The StoryGraph, which is run by a small, responsive team and provides and excellent way to keep track of your reading.
See Threat Modeling by Privacy Guides.
January 2023: After reading Cal Newport's book Digital Minimalism, I decided to delete a few more apps from my smartphone, including my email applications. Removing email apps really helped make my smartphone feel less compelling to me.
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