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
Mobile Operating Systems
- Android based OSes
- Replicant 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 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 FLOSS 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 FLOSS 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. Librem OS 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 is the only App store you really need on your mobile phone. It works on all Android flavors and comes only with FLOSS.
- 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 free (as in free beer) 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 FLOSS 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 Linux distro is a very personal process, so you will have to do your own research. I'll just mention a few:
- For full freedom you'd have to go with a flavor endorsed by the FSF. Here is a list. To name two: gNewSense is funded by the FSF and Trisquel is also recommended e.g. by privacytools.io.
- Debian has a strong ethical codex that all included software has to follow.
- Ubuntu is based on Debian and generally more often suggested for GNU/Linux beginners, but less so by freedom and privacy advocates.
- Other notable Linux distributions: Fedora and Qubes
- BSD should also be mentioned here as the second FLOSS 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 FLOSS 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.
- Tor Browser is the first choice when it comes to privacy. It comes with a lot of privacy enhancing features built in and as long as you follow the Tips for using Tor you should be quite safe. But a lot of sites won't load and if you still need to access them you'll probably need another browser. Also connection via Tor can be quite slow. So I recommend using another browser for the sites you view daily and trust and using Tor as the first choice for everything else – especially for data-sensitive research. On mobile Tor Browser is still in alpha, but it works great, so I definitely recommend it over Orfox, which is a stable release but outdated.
- Firefox Firefox is the gold standard in FLOSS 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. The before mentioned Tor Browser is one example, here are more:
- Klar is a great choice for unexperienced users, 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. It is not very convenient to use for browsing sites that you regularly use while logged in. Klar comes preinstalled on Fairphone Open OS, probably because it is a great way for experienced users to get the F-Droid apk or the apk of whichever browser they want to use and start from there. ❗️ 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 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 actually the mobile browser that I am using at the moment, but that has historic reasons and as soon as I have the time to do the set up I'll switch to Fennec or IceCat and Tor Browser permanently. For a long time addons on mobile Firefox sucked, so using a browser that didn't have addons didn't make a lot of difference and I chose Lighting as it is Tor enabled and still quite fast. If Tor Browser is still too slow for you browsing Tor via Lighting (which is less secure) could still be an option for you. ❗️ 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.
- 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.
- DuckDuckGo 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 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 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’.
- Other notable mentions: Searx, Qwant , 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 and am very happy with it.
- Tutanota is the email provider I would use if I wasn't already happy with riseup. If I ever need a secondary email address I'll get one there. Additionally to being very privacy friendly Tutanota’s service is CO2 neutral.
- ProtonMail has been suggested to me and after I did some reseatch I am adding it here as a mail provider, but I explicitely 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. I haven't tested it yet as it only works with a Tutanota email address.
- Other notable mobile mail apps: Fair Email and it's 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.
- Silence 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.
- 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.
- Telegram FOSS is a purely FLOSS 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 FLOSS fork of that one.
- Notable mentions (Android apps): Kontalk Briar TRIfA DeltaChat RiotIM
To understand FLOSS 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 @firstname.lastname@example.org. “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 that site 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.