Douglas C Schmidt, a Vanderbilt University professor of computer science, found last year that “a dormant, stationary Android phone (with the Chrome browser active in the background) communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period.” Every time you use almost any Android phone, you’re trading your privacy for convenience. If that bothers you, and you can’t stand being locked into Apple, you should consider a phone with the Google-less beta /e/ Android operating system.
To give /e/ a try, I gave it every possible advantage. I used a Samsung Galaxy S9+ with pre-installed /e/ OS. This refurbished dual-SIM phone with 64GB of storage, along with other Samsung models, is available in Europe. According to /e/ founder, Gaël Duval, phones in Australia and New Zealand will be coming shortly, and arrangements for offering used /e/ powered phones in the US are ongoing.
To my test phone, I added an Orange SIM card and used it to replace my Verizon-based Pixel 3 during a combination European work trip and vacation. Here’s what I found with a high-end smartphone and the latest /e/ updates.
Basic phone functionality
I could call and text, albeit with a Spanish phone number, as usual. If all you wanted was a phone, /e/ gives you all you need. Of course, in 2019, no one wants “just” a phone. They want applications and services at their fingertips.
Behind the scenes, my new /e/ phone was running LineageOS. This is an Android-based operating system, which is descended from the failed CyanogenMod Android fork. To it, /e/’s developers added features from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) 7, 8, and 9 source-code trees.
This Android clone also incorporates the upstream Android’s security patches. So, my phone’s operating system, which paralleled Android 8.1, has Android security patch level Sept. 5, 2019. That makes it more secure than the vast majority of other Android phones.
Within the /e/ OS, Google services have been removed and replaced with MicroG services. MicroG replaces Google’s libraries with purely open-source implementations without hooks to Google’s services. This includes libraries and apps, which provide Google Play, Maps, Geolocation, and Messaging services for Android applications when they need them.
What this means is that you can run some Android apps, which normally only work on a fully Google-enabled Android phone on an /e/ phone. These compatible apps are available via the /e/ app store. These largely come from the F-Droid repository
With its privacy-first emphasis, when you look at an app in the store, and it presents you the program’s privacy settings and exactly what information it’s sharing. It’s up to you to decide if an app’s utility is worth its privacy compromises.
That said, the more tied in an app is with the Google ecosystem, the less likely it is to work. Google Maps, for example, looks like it will run… right up to the point where it won’t render any maps. A mapping program without maps is about as useless as you can get.
The /e/ developers, however, provide their map answer. Unfortunately, the General Magic Maps app is lousy. The problem seems to lie with its underlying OpenStreetMap data. I finally gave up on it, which led to my failed attempt to get Google Maps to run on the system. I was finally able to find an acceptable substitute with the old Nokia app, Here WeGo.
The photo app, while not fancy, does the job. The /e/ browser, which is based on Chromium, Chrome’s open-source big brother, works well. If you want, you can easily add Firefox or another browser. The built-in Etar calendar works well, too. By default, it keeps all your appointments on the phone, but you can also sync it with calendar servers.
The /e/ platform also comes with its own services and access third-party services. For example, its built-in web browser search function defaults to Qwant, a popular, privacy-first European-based search engine. The operating system also has its own IMAP-based email system at the email domain.
Instead of Google Drive for cloud storage, you get /e/’s own cloud, ecloud.global, which is based on the open-source NextCloud. With this service, you get 5GB of storage for free. If you want more, 64GB will cost €49.90 per year, and 128GB will run you €79.90 a year. Besides storage, you can sync your email, contacts, calendars, files, notes, and photos to this cloud service. Don’t trust /e/? You can now install its cloud services on your own server to maximize your control and privacy.
Most of these services ran quite well. Qwant was a bit slow but was perfectly acceptable. The email ran well. I decided to use my mail domain, and I had no trouble at all using it.
When you start adding other apps, you may run into other problems. For example, I use Lyft by choice and Uber when I must for getting around cities when I’m traveling. Unfortunately, both are tied in closely to Google Maps. Uber crashed a lot for me, while Lyft worked, but I learned to never trust that the car icons map positions. One car, which looked like it was coming down the block, was a quarter of a mile away.
For messaging, I prefer encrypted security of Signal or Telegram. These work well for me on my /e/ phone. But, while WhatsApp is a privacy disaster, most of my friends use it. WhatsApp doesn’t work with /e/. Period. Sorry guys, I can’t get to you for now.
Other popular applications, such as Facebook, install and run without any problems. Of course, they come not only with their own set of security problems — I mean, it’s Facebook after all — but they also ping Google websites. The default Twitter app, on the other hand, won’t install at all.
A monster of a job
Ridding yourself of Google isn’t easy. Still, with /e/ you can minimize your exposure to it.
That said, installing /e/ is a monster of a job. I’ve been installing Linux by hand since I had to burn my floppy disks from a ftped download of the latest kernel. Installing /e/ isn’t that bad. But, it’s not for the faint of heart or technically inept either. Of course, if you live in the EU you can buy a working /e/ phone today, in which case your only installation will be to give them your name, address, and credit card number.
Duval knows it’s a pain to install. He promises that his team is “creating a new tool that will allow anyone to install /e/ OS on any supported smartphone, just by plugging it into a PC (Linux, MacOS, or Windows) and following instructions.”
If you’re technically savvy, go ahead and try it today. I found the beta to be quite stable. The applications can be a pain, but the base operating system never gave me a moment of trouble. It works with 89 smartphone models, and the /e/ code and installation instructions are available for download.
If you can wait, the first shipping version, /e/ 1.0 with an easy installer is due to appear in late February at Mobile World Congress. Come that day, if privacy really matters to you, I suggest you give it a try.