The exorbitant toll of divorcing Google
I've been trying to get Google out of my digital life over the last few years. Why? You may ask. The main reason is Google's long history of privacy concerns and their never ending zeal to gather every bit and byte of information about us and monetize it. Secondarily, I also like the idea of ridding myself of a company whose lust for engagement includes algorithms that repetitively promote misinformation, rumors, and salacious or divisive content. There are also tertiary concerns about anticompetitive business practices. (Perhaps more on that in another post...)
Some of the first steps I took were to switch from Google search to DuckDuckGo, ditch the Chrome web browser for Firefox, and switch from Gmail to Protonmail for personal email. Those weren't terribly difficult or burdensome, although there was an adjustment period. I also moved my blog from Google's Blogger platform to this site. That was considerably more effort, but c'est la vie. The most recent step I took was a long, frustrating ride.
Google and Android
I've been using Android devices for a long time. In fact, my first Android phone was the T-Mobile G1, which was the first Android device sold in the US. At the time, I liked the idea of open-source software, supporting the 'little guy', and increased competition. Over the years, I started putting the pieces together and realized my cell phone was a tracking device I carried with me everywhere. And it wasn't just my wireless carrier to be worried about: it was the slew of Google apps that came pre-installed with Android, along with the 3rd party apps too.
Dave is a long time member of #TeamAndroid
As my last Android device aged more and more, I started looking for ways to protect my privacy. One option was to use Android without a Google account. There were some drawbacks and sacrifices. I felt I could live with them, though. They seemed far more palatable than what I thought of as the 'nuclear' option: rooting a device and installing a custom ROM. Rooting an Android device sounded risky as hell. Every How-To article I read was full of scary disclaimers and warnings that you risked "bricking" your device if you failed to follow any of the steps exactly, or performed them out of order. So Android without a Google account was the plan. Nonetheless, I still had some apprehension and decided I wouldn't try it without a fallback plan--a second Android phone.
I bought an Asus Zenfone8 earlier this year. My initial efforts to configure it without a Google account were encouraging. It had Google's fingerprints all over it, though. I iterated through all the apps and uninstalled anything I didn't want...that is, if I was *allowed* to uninstall it. For the remaining crapware/Google apps, I rescinded every permission I was allowed to, disabled every I app I was allowed to, and turned off notifications for every app I was allowed to. Things quickly turned sour. I started getting a barrage of notifications from various apps telling me they "won't work unless you enable Google Play services." I surmised any app that won't work without Google Play services is a vehicle for Google to hoard my data.
My frustration towards Google began to mount. It wasn't just the volume of notifications. It felt like there was an intentional effort to make it difficult to increase privacy, while making it easy to relinquish. As an example, it took countless minutes, swipes, and taps to block access to the camera across all apps. In return, Android presented an "Unblock device camera" prompt to 'undo' all of that work with a single tap. Nothing about this device felt like consumer-friendly open source software.
In spite of my efforts, Android without a Google *account* was still Android with Google. I wasn't happy about this at all. Unsure of what to do next, I gave up for a few days to give it some more thought.
The Nuclear Option
Several folks on social media encouraged me to root my phone and install a custom ROM. I begrudgingly decided to give it a try, knowing it might be my only option to get a Google-free Android experience. I set aside a whole weekend to tackle this project, feeling quite certain it was not going to be quick or easy. My concerns were not misguided.
My research showed me these were the high-level steps involved:
- Unlock the bootloader.
- Install a recovery image for Android-based devices, such as Team Win Recovery Project (TWRP).
- Install the custom ROM
That first step was the most difficult, and certainly the most time consuming. I read numerous articles about unlocking my phone, but for the better part of a Saturday, I couldn't figure it out. I was directed to change Android settings that didn't exist on my phone or were inaccessible (disabled). Other articles suggested the phone might be unlocked already. Bemusingly, there was no way to find out from Android settings--at least none that I could find. At some point, I downloaded an Android SDK to my laptop. With my phone connected via a USB cable, I was able to run some command line diagnostics via ADB.exe, the Android Debug Bridge command line application.
Around dinner time, I stumbled upon some Asus documentation that showed how to unlock the phone. There was an app (in the form of a *.apk file) that I had to download and manually install from the command line via ADB.exe. (By this time, I had gotten pretty comfortable with ADB.) Then from the phone, I ran the app, tapped a button or two on the screen, and my device was unlocked. Looking back, I give credit to Asus for providing a way to unlock the bootloader entirely from the device, and via a GUI. Their documentation was reasonably clear. But I was greatly confused by reading other documentation/articles that were not device-specific.
The next step was installing TWRP. Admittedly, I don't remember a lot about the TWRP install. There was at least one device restart, some ADB.exe and fastboot.exe commands I had to run from a Windows console on my laptop, and ongoing concerns that I was about to brick my device. It was a little nerve racking. But it was quick and I wasn't twisting in the wind for long.
The last step was the ROM installation. I chose a LineageOS ROM that was created specifically for the Zenfone8. There were some prerequisites. One was to flash additional partitions with a vendor boot image. Another was to boot a custom recovery using fastboot. (I don't fully understand why those were required. Isn't that why TWRP was installed?) The final task was to sideload (install) LineageOS from a zip file. This wasn't terribly long, but I was borderline terrified as I stared at this console window.
The footprint for LineageOS was fairly clean. It only had 190 installed packages vs 324 for the Zenfone 8's stock Android OS. Also, LineageOS only had two traces of "Google" in the list of installed packages:
I tried uninstalling both via ADB, but was unsuccessful. It was a mild disappointment, but one I felt I could live with.
A Byzantine Path
So there you have it. I rooted my phone and installed an alternate OS for Android. I was profoundly happy to have gotten it done. I was willing to go to great lengths to keep Google as far away from my digital life as possible. But I was still frustrated. And if you value privacy, you should be salty too.
It shouldn't have to be this hard. Privacy is a human right. For everyone. Not just for people with some technical skills, a network of helpful friends on social media, and the societal privilege to afford the financial risk of bricking a device. Not everyone can do what I did over the course of a weekend. (Hell, I almost didn't do it either.) And that doesn't sit well with me. It shouldn't sit well with any of us.