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I'm trying to eliminate all Google and Meta services from my digital life. (I don't like their policies.)

So I thought about buying a new smartphone, removing the pre-installed ROM, and installing Android AOSP without Google Gapps.

However, the question I would like to ask is whether programmatically, a lot of information from my AOSP smartphone will communicate some information with Google despite not using their services. Is removing Gapps enough, or could something else be done? Is there empirical evidence in the code that confirms this?

Considering that for web browsing I would mainly use Mozilla Firefox with DuckDuckGo thus avoiding any Chromium-based browser, and for messaging Telegram downloaded from their Website. (I haven't used WhatsApp for several years.)

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2 Answers 2

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A very large portion of the applications for Android depend on Google Play Services and Cloud Messaging, even if you don't want to use a Google account. AOSP and most alternative "Google-free" Android distros like LineageOS are therefore not very useful for running anything until you install the core Google Apps suite, including Play Services, on them. And then you're back to Google controlling your phone.

Unless you just want to run some unpolished FOSS apps off F-Droid, there are basically two ways out of this that get you near-complete Android app support:

  1. microg - a minimal alternate implementation of Google Play services and other system components, not controlled by Google. It will connect to Google services for the purposes of cloud messaging and to login to a Google account if you want to do that (e.g. to use with the GMail app or YouTube app, if you choose to install them, which you can do as normal unprivileged apps). Unfortunately, in order for it to work, the system has to lie to apps that microg is the real Google-signed Play Services, and most popular distros, including LineageOS, refuse to do this, despite it being the right and necessary thing to do. (LineageOS will even ban you from their IRC channel or other support venues just for asking about microg.) If you want to go this route, the easy way that doesn't require lots of hacking and breaking automatic system upgrades is to get the build of LineageOS from microg: https://lineage.microg.org/

  2. GrapheneOS has a system whereby, rather than using microg, they sandbox the real Google Play Services to run as a highly restricted normal app rather than a system app. This gets you full functionality, including access to paid apps and in-app purchases, without Google having any control over your device.

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  • Wow, you showed me something really important. I didn't know this aspect. just as I didn't know about microG. Now I will go into more detail about the issue (as far as I can). It would seem like a subtle difference between LineageOS and MicroG but it is so important. I ask a stupid question: these two OS are the best that the open source world can offer for an experience without monopolization by companies? Thanks anyway for your super useful contribution. I know grapheneOS, and for now it's the most valid solution I've found, but happy to be proven wrong Dec 12, 2023 at 1:57
  • Note that some apps incl. banking or DRM secured content will not work with microG Dec 12, 2023 at 11:54
  • @VahidAmiri: I haven't encountered that, but have heard it's a problem. I'm not sure what workarounds are available. Dec 12, 2023 at 18:12
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I know the project has always been open-source but recently purchased by Google.

You are mistaken on that point. The original Android, Inc. was founded in 2003 and acquired by Google in 2005. Google develops AOSP as open source, but you can't just install that and go. The reason for that is device drivers: those are almost all proprietary, written by SoC and/or device manufacturers, are not released as open-source, and aren't in AOSP.

If you want an Android-like smartphone OS without Google apps, the easiest way to get that is to pick a device that LineageOS supports, buy one, and put LineageOS on it. You'll find that most of the devices it supports are obsolete: this is because reverse-engineering hardware to write open-source drivers takes time, and nobody gets paid to do it.

There are other custom Android versions, but LineageOS is the most widely used.

Addendum: There are also a few manufacturers who provide their own Google-free alternative ROMs. SHIFT ships their phones with all the Google stuff (as any manufacturer must if their device is certified by Google), but you can download their Google-free ROM directly to the device and use its updater to switch.

The Fairphone 2 had the similar Fairphone Open. That doesn't seem to have been repeated for later models. You can download Fairphone's source and build yourself a new OS, but this is a big job and requires skill.

Further lists of alternative ROMs are here and here.

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    Hi John and thanks for your reply. I apologize for the mistake I made. I hadn't considered the drivers, this unsettles me a bit. In my ignorance I thought that the AOSP versions were ready to use, but this is not the case. This slows down my project, I know LineageOS but I don't love it much. But apparently it seems to be the only solution that is closest to what I thought. I admit my ignorance for having left out some details such as drivers. I thought it would be easier to give up these services.Paradoxically, this also applies to Pixel devices, right?.Thanks for your time and knowledge John Dec 10, 2023 at 22:45
  • @BruceEcurb: There are many other customised versions of Android: see my updated answer. Dec 10, 2023 at 23:05
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    Almost none of the phones sold in China communicate with Google/Meta, but... Dec 11, 2023 at 16:25
  • LineageOS without Google apps won't be able to run much of anything, because Play Services/Google Cloud Messaging will be missing, and most Android apps need those to run. When you complain they'll just tell you to install Google Apps, then you're back where you started. The solution is to get microg, but mentioning that in any LineageOS support venue will get you banned. The easy way to do this is getting the build from microg: lineage.microg.org Dec 11, 2023 at 22:34
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    Thanks @JohnDallman for integrating that with your answer (I'll clean up those comments now as they're no longer needed)! If you want to link to SHIFT, you can find their site here: shiftphones.com
    – Izzy
    Dec 12, 2023 at 0:11

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