De-Googling Android

By Rom Feria

When Google was respecting their “Don’t be evil!” mantra, I was one of those early Android users. I had the G1 (well, I have their first Android prototype that looked like a Blackberry than an iPhone!), one of the early Samsung Android phones, and the Nexus One! I remained loyal until “Don’t be evil!” meant nothing to the Mountain View company. My last Android devices were the Nexus 5 phone and Nexus 7 tablet.

I still have the Nexus 5 and Nexus 7, but both are no longer supported with Android updates from Google. These two are still capable devices, but running on an old Android version simply won’t cut it, not to mention I limit my use of anything from Google. Thinking that it’d be a waste if I throw these away, so I figured, it is time to remove Google’s grip on these former Android flagship devices, and make them useful again.

I have mentioned before, this open source community produces an Android ROM straight from the Android Open Source Project, the same Android internals as those running on the latest Google Pixel devices, but without the proprietary surveillance software from Google, e.g., Play Store, Gmail, Hangouts, Chrome, etc. So off I went to check the proper ROM image for the Nexus devices, followed the instructions to install it on the device and that’s it. I also used the cool support from the community at /r/lineageos.

It will only take you an hour or so to follow the instructions to enable debug mode on your device, unlock it, wipe, back-up, and install a new ROM. You need your USB data cable to do all of these to connect it to your computer. I used a Linux desktop to clean the devices of Google’s tracking software.

Running a device on LineageOS requires access to an app repository. Whilst there is the hard-core F-Droid repository, its app collection is limited only to applications that are open source. Unless you find all your applications from F-Droid, you will need access to third-party applications from the Google Play Store!

If you can’t install non-open source third-party applications, then where’s the fun in using an Android device, right? Well, the community has your back! In my case, I installed MicroG, on both Nexus 5 and Nexus 7, to intercept applications’ requiring the presence of Google’s Play services and provides all the necessary responses the applications expect for it to run.

I have F-Droid and Yalp app repositories. Yalp provides a proxy to the actual Google Play Store — it downloads free third-party applications on your behalf without exposing your identity. Unfortunately, if you want to download paid applications, you will need to add your account for billing purposes (and this defeats the purpose of getting rid of Google services!).

Lastly, I installed Wire, for messaging, DuckDuckGo as my default search engine and browser, and Orbot, a TOR application to route all my network traffic through the TOR network for added anonymity. There are still a lot of applications on F-Droid that you can install and enjoy — it just needs time to explore.

So there you go — I have successfully de-Googled Google’s former flagship devices, the Nexus 5 smartphone and Nexus 7 tablet!