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Smartphone Sovereignty

Posted: 11 August, 2021 · Tweet

Last week Apple announced that it would soon roll out CSAM (Child Sexual Abuse Material) photo detection on iCloud Photos, with the capability to do this on mobile devices in the future. The stated objective is unarguable and well-meaning; that of tackling child sexual abuse. This is a huge and important problem. One for which Apple has a particular problem with, if one expert at least is to be believed.

Nevertheless this sudden, surprising announcement was met with a great deal of concern from many developers, privacy campaigners, organisations, academics, security experts and lawyers. Many people, and notably world experts on the topic, see the backdoor for Apple mobile devices as a slippery slope towards distributed surveillance.

Google and Apple jointly dominate 99% of the worldwide mobile operating systems market. Apple’s iPhone has long been the choice for people looking for more out-of-the-box privacy. Many Apple enthusiasts and advocates, following this announcement, now view the company’s privacy marketing positioning as insincere. But if you want to switch from Apple what choices do you have? We detail some of your options below.

Incidentally, if you are interested in details of the Apple announcement, and the technical proposals being made, you can read Apple’s child safety page. The expert referred to above reviews photo analysis technologies, AI methods and CSAM reporting in this article. He largely debunks Apple’s claims for the technical efficacy of their approach, and has even questioned the legality of their proposed actions. An open letter explaining concerns and calling for action has been signed by thousands including Mojeek.

Hardware

Stock Android Phone

The main way that people use non-Android, non-iOS operating systems for a smartphone is by purchasing a device shipped with stock Android on it, and then rooting the device. Rooting is a process you can use to install a different operating system. This is similar process to purchasing a machine that is set up to run Windows and instead installing Linux.

Rooting a phone can violate the conditions within your warranty, and done incorrectly can lead to your phone breaking beyond the point of repair. Rooting can mean weaker security and some apps not working. It also of course means you will be unable to receive regular Android updates. Buying an Android phone and deGoogling your device is not the only option though.

PinePhone and Fairphone

There are also ambitious projects that provide people with hardware that is completely unlinked to Google or Apple. One example is PINE64 who are the team behind the PinePhone, a Linux-only community developed smartphone. Another is Fairphone, a modular phone that encourages owners to upgrade and repair it as they see fit.

Both of these projects offer up a way of using hardware that is completely untethered from the commercial agreements that exist between Google and the various phone companies that carry their Android operating system.

Apple Hardware

Whilst you can root and install a different operating system on an Android device, you can’t do that with an Apple iPhone or iPad. Apple famously lock you down, so all you can do is jailbreak their devices, allowing you access to a third-party app store on your iPhone called Cydia. Very rarely there are stories of people installing non-iOS operating systems on iPhones but these are few and far between.

Now let’s check out the operating system software you can run on your, liberated-from-Big-Tech smartphone.

Software

Android-based

LineageOS

LineageOS is based upon the Android Open Source Project’s (AOSP) releases, and is one of the more stable of the alternative options. It is compatible with a wide range of different hardware options, is regularly updated, and comes without any Google apps pre-installed. If you are looking to keep this device as private as possible, avoid temptation to install anything which might send information back to Google and check out the F-Droid store which has numerous useful Free and Open Source apps. You can also install Google Apps Packages (GApps) and run Android-native apps on Lineage if these are things that you are unable to live without.

Linux-based

The following options will only appeal to people who are technically competent and confident. You will also need the patience and time required to set-up a working system. Mainstream apps that you use on Android or on iOS will either not work, or will require you to set up something like AnBox in order to run them inside a “container“; this is like a tiny Virtual Machine running on your phone for each app. On top of this operating systems are likely to be less hardened from a security perspective without doing further work. This being said, they are completely free from any kind of dependency upon Google or Apple’s systems, which is your likely aim here. Considering the fact that a lot of these projects are being maintained by small teams with tight budgets (if any) it’s impressive what has been achieved here.

PostmarketOS

PostmarketOS (pmOS) is based on Alpine Linux a small, simple, secure, flavour of Linux that uses only 5MB of memory. This small footprint is very useful when the device you’re intending to run it on is an older phone. The operating system should work on a wide range of devices, but those supporting smartphone functionality such as calls, working audio, and a functional user interface are the PinePhone and Purism Librem 5.

Ubuntu Touch

Ubuntu Touch is a mobile version of the Ubuntu Operating System. This operating system closely emulates the experience of using a regular smartphone, with some neat additions on top of it. There may not be full support on different hardware devices, such as the PinePhone, but devices such as the Google Pixel 3a and the Oneplus One can run with almost full functionality. The project is maintained by a large community of contributors and is linked to the UBPorts Foundation, a charitable Foundation registered under German law.

Mobian

Mobian is Debian Linux for mobile devices. It is supported on the Oneplus 6/6T and Pocophone F1 when it comes to made-for-Android devices, and on the PinePhone and Librem 5. There is a great deal of customisation available to anyone running Mobian who is willing to dig into their well-maintained Wiki. You will need to use the command line to tweak the look and feel of it. The Mobian project supports running webapps as if they are apps from your phone’s homescreen.

Manjaro

Manjaro is based on Arch Linux, which means that it comes with a great deal of customisability. This being said, it’s designed with both beginners and experienced users in mind. The version which runs on desktops is stable and works very well for the majority of normal office and personal uses. However some smartphone functionality desired might not work; for example GPS can be unreliable. Developments will likely improve this in the future.

Conclusion

Getting away from Apple and Google controlled smartphones is not currently a viable option for the vast majority of people. Huawei offer their own smartphone and operating system, but few looking for comfort on privacy are going to go there.

Installing a different operating system on an Android based, non-Google, operating system is probably the best option for most with technical confidence and skills. A willingness to compromise on smartphone functionality and app choice will be needed too.

For those with less technical confidence or time, there is always the option of buying Android based, non-Google phones which have already been set up for you.

A Linux-based phone is an interesting option for enthusiastic and skilled technologists and the very motivated.

Hopefully in a few years time there will be better functionality and more choice available. Apple’s move just gave a big boost to projects and emergent startups offering alternatives to Big Tech’s surveillance driven portfolio.