How to Live Without Google and Other Evil Tech Giants
This is my personal list of tools to avoid Surveillance Capitalism. I will try to keep it up to date, add more stuff and fix mistakes that are pointed out to me. Please also give me tips for other tools I could use, but don't be mad if I don't have the time to look into and add all of them. Besides avoiding big tech companies there are other important aspects regarding privacy and security that I won't get into in this article much – but I might add some links.
For other lists check out these websites:
D’Evils (what we are trying to avoid)
The links below will not take you to the companies' websites, but to Wikipedia articles about mergers by the companies. That should give you an indication about their dominance in the industry.
- Operating Systems
- Web Browsing
- General Considerations
Mobile Operating Systems
- Android based OSes
- Replicant (Freedom and Privacy Tip) is the only Android OS that is 100% free software, so all proprietary Android parts are removed. It is clearly the most privacy friendly Android flavor, but since it is only supported on a limited number of mostly old devices and it lacks many features people are used to on their smartphones it's mostly relevant for activists and free software idealists. They have some great recommendations on how to be extra safe.
- Lineage OS (Beginner Tip) is a great compromise between privacy and usability for most users. It is actively developed by a great community and receives timely security updates and Android upgrades and comes with some cool built in features that other Android OSes lack.
- Let me here mention other AOSP-based OSes in general. Most are probably similar to LOS when it comes to privacy, but have less features. One notable mention (❗️ here I am biased) is Fairphone Open OS which is one of the few such OSes that is officially supported by the phone manufacturer and one of the few that comes with F-Droid privileged extension preinstalled.
- Lineage OS for microG is great if you are a little more dependent on apps that refuse to work without Google. MicroG is a free implementation of Google Services, so your device and apps can use Google's services while sending a minimal amount of data to Google – but still some.
- /e/ is a great option if you still miss more services Google usually offers. With an /e/ account you can sync your data from your /e/ device to your /e/ cloud. The OS is still in beta phase, but a lot of exciting features are rumored for the first official release that should come soon. With that /e/ could become interesting for a wider range of people between super-privacy-aware and shiny-feature-junky.
- Not an OS, but as the next step on the spectrum between living completely without Google and living with as much Google as you need I should mention OpenGAPPS. It is a free script that installs ❗️the Google Apps and Services on your Android phone, so if you choose to do that you are already very dependent on Google, but you can choose different packages which include more or less apps – so at least you don't have to have all Google apps on your phone if you don't need them.
- I haven't extensively tested any Non-Android OS, so I can't say much here. PureOS would definitely be my first choice as the most privacy friendly option. I tested Ubuntu Touch for a while in 2017 and was quite pleased with it. It's definitely worth checking out if you don't like Android.
Mobile App Stores
- F-Droid (Overall Tip) is the only App store you really need on your mobile phone. It works on all Android flavors and comes only with free software.
- Repositories: In F-Droid you can choose different sources for apps. Besides the main repo I'd recommend enabling the Guardian Project repo in the settings and if you want more apps to choose from get Izzy’s repo. Beware with other repos, if you're not absolutely sure you can trust their maintainers.
- Alternative client apps: If you don't like the look and feel of the F-Droid client app I'd recommend you try G-Droid. It has a lot of exciting new features and an active developer who is open to input. Another alternative would be M-Droid.
- Yalp can be used additionally if you absolutely think you need some apps that are not available on F-Droid. You can get all gratis apps from the Play store with a fake account. ❗️ You'll still be sending some data to Google, but less than if you'd have the Play store and Google services on your phone. Also many apps you can get there are dependent on Google software or contain other adware/spyware.
- Aurora is a fork of Yalp, so it does the same, but with a different, more fancy design.
Desktop Operating Systems
- GNU/Linux is the 3rd big operating system that everybody knows besides Windows and Mac OS and of those 3 it's the only free OS. There is not one GNU/Linux though that you can download and install, but there are very many distributions. This is not the place to get into all of them. Also choosing a distro is a very personal process, so you will have to do your own research.
For full freedom you'd have to go with a flavor endorsed by the FSF. Here is a list. I'll mention a few of them below as Freedom Tips.
Btw, these distros are ordered by bloodline and timeline, not by how much I recommend them.
- Debian is one of the oldest distros and has a strong ethical codex that all included software has to follow – which of course is not necessarily true for all Debian derivates.
- Ubuntu is based on Debian and generally more often suggested for GNU/Linux beginners, but less so by freedom and privacy advocates. I am using Ubuntu as my first GNU/Linux system, but it definitely won't be my last.
- Linux Mint (Beginner Tip) is based on Ubuntu and I've heard a lot of great things about it lately. Apparently the consensus is that it's even more beginner friendly while also being more privacy friendly.
- gNewSense (Freedom Tip) is another Ubuntu derivate and it is endorsed and funded by the FSF. So it's great for freedom but probably not very beginner friendly.
- Lubuntu (Environmental Tip) is an Ubuntu derivate that like Ubuntu itself you don't usually hear mentioned as a very privacy friendly choice, but it is very lightweight, fast and energy-friendly so it is regularly recommended to install on old devices that are getting slow. Saving a computer from going to e-waste this way is great for the environment.
- Trisquel (Freedom Tip) is another Debian derivate recommended by the FSF and also by privacytools.io. Trisquel is the OS most often pre-installed on computers the FSF labels “Respects your freedom”.
- PureOS (Freedom and Privacy Tip) is yet another Debian derivate endorsed by the FSF. It comes with extra strict inclusion policies for software.
- Notable Debian derivate: MX Linux
- Fedora and Qubes are notable derivates of the Redhat distro.
- BSD should also be mentioned here as the second free OS besides GNU/Linux. It also has many distributions, of which Free BSD is often recommended as a very good option for freedom and privacy.
As for Desktop App Stores many free operating systems come with their own stores. I can only speak for Ubuntu, which comes with a store including free as well as proprietary apps. You can't filter them so you'll always have to check whether the app is free or proprietary before installing. Otherwise just manually install apps from developers you trust by following the install instructions on their websites.
- Firefox (Beginner Tip) is the gold standard in free web browsing and even when considering proprietary apps probably only Chrome comes near performance-wise. With many built in features and a huge set of available addons (see below) you can turn Firefox into a very privacy friendly browser, but still many groups don't recommend it because it doesn't go far enough.
E.g.: ❗️ This browser comes with Google as the standard search engine.
That's why there are many browsers based on Firefox that e.g. don't come with certain proprietary features, don't use Google as a standard search engine, don't promote proprietary addons or don't have the voluntary tracking options that Firefox has. Here are some examples:
- Tor Browser (Privacy Tip) is the first choice when it comes to privacy. It uses the Tor network to enable anonymous browsing and comes with a lot of additional privacy enhancing features built in. As long as you follow the Tips for using Tor you should be very safe. Browsing via Tor can be quite slow and using the default settings – which is recommended – can break some sites. Thats why you might want to use a different browser for sites you use daily and trust and use the Tor browser only for sensitive research.
- Klar is a great choice for unexperienced users who still want a high privacy level, as it comes very privacy friendly out of the box. You don't have to change any settings (except for the search engine) or (can't) download any addons and Klar will already let you browse the web very privately. E.g. It will regularly delete cache and other private data and it won't let you store passwords. Therefore it is not very convenient to use for browsing sites that you regularly use while logged in. I still use it as my main browser along with Tor Browser at the moment. ❗️ This browser comes with Google as the standard search engine.
- Fennec F-Droid is an attempt to remove all proprietary bits from mobile Firefox, but there still might be some blobs left and it still comes with anti-features on F-Droid. ❗️ This browser comes with Google as the standard search engine.
- GNU IceCat (Freedom Tip) is the FSF’s version built on Firefox ESR, which means it doesn't have the latest fancy Firefox features. Instead it is stripped from most proprietary stuff, comes with FSF endorsed addons preinstalled (and doesn't promote other addons).
- Lightning is a nice browser I used for a while. On many devices it will be one of the fastest browsers and with it you are even able to browse via Tor quite fast. ❗️ This browser comes with Google as the standard search engine.
- uBlock Origin is the only ad blocker you need, but it's more than that. You can block all kinds of stuff. E.g. you can get blocklists from Stephen Black to block fake news, porn, social media or gambling sites. You can also block individual elements that you don't like on sites to give them a more clear appearance.
- Cloud Firewall is an awesome addon that can completely block connections to Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Cloudflare including sites or elements hosted on their clouds.
- Https Everywhere Is another must-have that lets you browse the web via secure https if possible and block sites that don't have https set up or at least warn before you access them.
- Privacy Badger, like Htts Everywhere is developed by the EFF and is a great tracker blocker. Another one is Decentraleyes. I'm using both.
- Multi Account Containers Is a great addon by Mozilla that let's you put the sites you browse into containers so the sites don't know what other sites you are on. You can enhance containers features with Switch Containers Plus and Temporary Containers. The latter basically offers the same function as Firefox's private window, only in a tab instead of a new window. You can set up the addon so all links you click that would change the domain you're on are opened in a new temporary container tab.
- Cookie Auto Delete automatically deletes cookies from sites after you close them. You can create exceptions and the addon even works in synergy with Multi-Account Containers.
- Location Guard is a neat addon if you allow some sites to access your location for convenience but don't want to give them your exact location. I don't really use it as I never let any site access my location.
- GNU Libre JS blocks non-free Java script and is endorsed by the FSF. No Script is an alternative. With both addons you'll probably have to create a lot of exceptions or you won't be able to access a lot of websites.
- uMatrix was recommended to me by multiple readers of this article. At first it can be a bit confusing for new users, but after two days it turned into one of my favorite addons. If you feel comfortable using this I guess you can replace the Java script blockers, cookie blocker and even tracker blockers from above.
- Notable mentions: Terms of Service; Didn't Read, Privacy Settings
- DuckDuckGo (Beginner Tip) is probably the most well known and feature-rich privacy-friendly web search engine. ❗️ Beware though the website is hosted on the Amazon cloud.
- Ecosia (Environmental Tip) is not known for being a very privacy friendly search engine (though they are working on it), but for it's “greenness”. Ecosia has advertisement, but donates a large portion if it's advertising revenue to reforestation projects and other environmental causes. ❗️ Ecosia's engine is based on Microsoft Bing and the site is stored on the Amazon cloud. I use Ecosia as my primary search engine, because sometimes you have to prioritize and I think saving the planet is more important than my privacy. Also I am quite confident I am doing enough to make sure I'm not leaking too much data while using Ecosia.
- Mojeek (Privacy Tip) is a search engine with no tracking whatsoever and a very low environmental impact. It was created in the UK and is hosted on ‘UK’s greenest data center’.
- Notable mentions: Searx, Qwant Lite , Startpage...
- Riseup is a anarcho-communist mail provider created especially for activists. To create an account you need invite codes by other users. I am using Riseup for many years now for my private emails and am very happy with it.
- Tutanota (Overall Tip) is very privacy friendly and also CO2 neutral. I recently started using it for my public email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. I blocked all #GAFAM domains, so you can't write to me from Gmail & Co.
- ProtonMail has been suggested to me and after I did some research I am adding it here as a mail provider, but I explicitly don't recommend the mobile app as it is proprietary software. Use one of the apps below instead.
- Mailbox[.]org was also suggested to me, but it is not free software, so I explicitely don't recommend it. Don't trust companies' unverifiable claims that they care about your privacy.
- K-9 Mail is a feature rich mobile Mail app with multi-account support. It has everything you are looking for. If you don't like it's design try K9 Material.
- Use Open Keychain to encrypt your mails with K-9 Mail.
- Thunderbird by Mozilla could be described the same as K-9, only it's for desktop.
- Use Enigmail for encryption with Thunderbird.
- Tutanota, the before mentioned email provider comes with it's own mail app on F-Droid. Encryption and other privacy enhancing features are built in. The app gets great reviews from the community. Like the Tutanota email address I have only started using this app recently.
- Notable mobile mail apps: Fair Email and its fork Simple Email, p≡p
The problem with instant messaging is that there are many different protocols in use and clients that use different protocols can't communicate with each other. SMS/MMS is the most widespread protocol – though it can be costly to send a lot of SMS/MMS texts. With other protocols you often either need to convince all your contacts to use the same messenger or have many messengers installed. The more privacy friendly the messenger the more likely you'll only be able to communicate with privacy-geeks.
- Silence (Overall Tip) is a mobile app for SMS/MMS texting. In their own words – which I wholeheartedly agree with – it is easy, reliable, private, safe and open source. From silence to silence encryption works flawlessly – which is why I think everyone should use it. Otherwise at least the local storage of received and sent messages is encrypted.
- Whatsapp-like: ❗️These apps use your phone number as your address, which is not recommended by most privacy advocates. Unfortunately I made the experience that apps like these are the only ones that I can get people to switch to, because they are easy and familiar.
- Signal is an instant messenger with lots of users, strong encryption and a mobile app as well as a desktop app. The android app can also be used to send SMS/MMS texts. Due to Signal not (never ever) being available on F-Droid, but the website only promoting the download of the Android version via Play store a lot of people, like me, don't really trust them. You can get the apk from here, but then you won't receive updates. Or use the before mentioned Yalp store. ❗️ Also the Signal servers don't run on free software, so you can't be sure who can access your metadata.
- Telegram FOSS (Beginner Tip) is a purely free fork of the popular Telegram messenger for F-Droid. ❗️ It accesses the official Telegram servers, so you can communicate with a huge number of users, but unfortunately those servers are not free. Also encryption is possible, but not enabled by default so lots of unencrypted chats are stored on non-free servers. There is also a desktop app, but I am not aware of a fully free fork of that one.
- Kontalk is the smallest and least known messenger app of this type. It is the only one of them that comes without anti-features on F-Droid, which means that the server runs on 100% free software.
- Really privacy friendly choices:
- RiotIM or rather Matrix (the service behind Riot) is where you can find me under @paulakreuzer:privacytools.io. For now the Android app only works with accounts on matrix.org, which is a server running ❗️ proprietary software. Other servers like privacytools.io, which I use are free.
- Conversations was recommended to me as a very privacy-friendly option by many people, but I never tried it myself.
- DeltaChat is a messenger based on IMAP – the email protocol. Its basically instant messaging via email, so it's privacy depends on your email provider and encryption.
- Experimental or fringe apps/services:
- Briar is a nice option for privacy/anonymity but it's not very convenient, because sender and receipient have to be online at the same time. It can be used without internet connection via bluetooth or wifi too.
- TRIfA is one of many apps that use the Tox service, which is not really maintained anymore I've been told.
To understand free social media you first need to understand the Fediverse and therefore these concepts:
- An identity is basically your profile. It has a unique address and is hosted on one of the many servers, also called instances.
- An Instance (or Hub) is basically a small social network hosted on one server. Each instance can have it's own set of rules as for what content is allowed. You can also host your own instance. Each instance runs one software.
- The software used on an instance is essential for the user experience and possibilities. See the list below.
- Some software use the same protocol which enables instances to communicate with each other – at least in theory.
- The fediverse (federated universe) is the sum of all identities, on all instances using any software, communicating with any protocol.
- E.g.: My main identity is @email@example.com. “mastodon.social” is the instance my identity is on. Mastodon is the software. Thanks to the ActivityPub protocol I can follow identities on other instances that use e.g. Mastodon, GNU Social or PixelFed software.
- Mastodon is a microblogging software (so like Twitter) and from my experience the most advanced software in the Fediverse and also the one where you find the most users.
- GNU Social is very similar to Mastodon, just with a different design. Communication between Mastodon and GNU Social works flawlessly.
- Pixelfed is an image-sharing service (so like Instagram), that is still under heavy development, but already works quite well. Communication to Mastodon works, but isn't great yet.
- WriteFreely is not really social media, but a blog service. This very article is brought to you powered by WriteFreely. Another alternative also part of the Fediverse is Wordpress, ❗️ but Wordpress.com has Google tracking.
- Friendica, Hubzilla and Diaspora are more Facebook-like. I have tested them all for a short while now and neither seems to work great yet.
The Fediverse is much more than just Social Media and blogging. There is e.g. also Funkwhale (below) and PeerTube (below). For a full? list of Software in the fediverse check out the Wikipedia article.
- Fedilab is my favorite mobile app for browsing the Fediverse. You can switch between different identities on Mastodon, Pleroma, Friendica, GNU Social, Peertube and soon Pixelfed instances.
- Tusky is a bit simpler – both in a positive and a negative sense, but otherwise very similar.
- AndStatus is another multi-account app, that works with Mastodon, GNU Social, Pump.io and also Twitter.
- OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a free collaborative maps project with all functions you expect.
- On mobile you'll probably find using OsmAnd more convenient than the website. You can also download maps for offline use.
- OSM depends on contributions. If something is missing on the map just add it. One of the easiest ways to contribute is the mobile app StreetComplete which will simply ask you questions about things near you.
- Transportr is the only additional mobile Navigation app you'll need, namely for public transportation.
- MicroG Unified NLP is your friend if your mobile OS doesn't come with any network location service and GPS is not enough for you. It helps your device get your approximate location via near mobile and wifi networks. To use it you'll also need at least one backend. I recommend the Mozilla backend. This project too depends on contributions. For that use Mozilla Stumbler.