Seeking A Smarter Smartphone

A phone in the foreground loading a new operating system; in the background, a laptop open with lots of text at the command line.
Neither Android nor iOS! This Nexus 5 was getting a new Linux operating system. Janet Vertesi, 2016.

If my friends are any indication, when most people have babies they get some new hobby like making baby clothes or baby food, or just watching a lot of Netflix. Personally, I started building alternative cell phones. And when that didn't work too well, I started hacking them. For fun.

How Smartphones Fail Us

Smartphones are notoriously leaky. First, there's those apps that grab all your data, that sneak a peak at what other apps are doing, that suck in your contacts and your location all for the sake of some microconvenience like, say, a nifty way to avoid a traffic jam, or an easier way to order a cappucino or a Happy Meal(TM).

Dig a little deeper and you'll find the smartphone operating system. If you use an Android handset, with very few exceptions, you are using a Google product--which means you are Google's product, and Google is using you. You log in with your gmail account ID and, voilà. They have your contacts, your location, everything you're searching for, everywhere you're going, all your apps and info, and the list goes on and on.

I don't care if it's open source. It's a data trap. I've spent ten years avoiding Googly things and I'm not about to start now.

How about Apple iOS? You know, the duopoly that makes you think you have a choice (she says, sarcastically). iPhones also require a login, with an Apple ID. They opt you into iCloud and trace everything you do. Location, apps, emails, messages. Just like Android, except it's going to a different letter of the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google).

That handy thing in Photos where it easily identifies people for you and you can find all the photos of, say, your dad? That's facial recognition software at work on your personal pics. Doing their part to identify private citizens as they walk across the street or into federal buildings or whatever they choose to do with their time.

As of yet, Apple doesn't use this information for targeted advertising to the extent that Google does. They rely on the price of their luxurious devices for profit. That said, I've noticed some uncanny changes recently that beg some re-evaluation. And Google's employees had to petition the company to stop delivering facial recognition systems for defense contracts, so no high horses there for Google either.

How about the hardware? The SIM card linked to your name and identity, the unique IMEI with which every infrastructure it encounters can instantly identify your device, even. Or the account with a service provider you need to activate it. 

There is just no anonymity when it comes to a smartphone.

Busting Up the Competition

Beginning in 2014, I decided to ditch my iPhone and experiment with alternatives. I wanted something that didn't opt me into their precious cloud to gather all my data (remember, "the cloud is just someone else's computer").  I wanted something that didn't wall me into their own app store without alternatives. I was getting tired of feeling like someone else was making decisions for me.

Plus, Steve Jobs had just died. As an organizational sociologist who studies technology, I knew I only had a few years before all the new shiny flashy iPhones just started looking like the old ones, maybe just with a bigger screen or something. That prediction certainly bore fruit, if you'll pardon the pun.

(And yes, I had already tried jailbreaking: after missing the call that literally offered me my job and the voicemail notification not telling me, that was the end of the line for me.)

Mostly, I didn't want to be tracked and traced. I didn't want pictures of myself or my children to be auto-facially-recognized. I wanted to choose which systems I used and when, and how and where my data went.

Here are some of the systems I have tried. I will blog about each of them in turn, I promise--nine years is an awful lot of cell phones to write about!

An array of alternative smartphones
Some of my alternative phone collection. I acquired a bunch of Mozilla's FirefoxOS handsets in 2016 thanks to a close friend who worked there as they mothballed the project. 

Phones I want to try...

  • Justine Haupt's UnSmartPhones (I have two kits queued up next!)
  • Pinephone (I've been following the forums and trying to get my hands on one, stay tuned!)
  • The new UbuntuTouch (recently rebooted)
  • e, although because it is fundamentally Android I may need to ease my way into this one.
  • Librem and other Purism projects. When I can afford it.
  • Blackphone. Will definitely need to save up for this one.

If this all seems like an expensive hobby, well, yes it is. However, I mostly acquire preloved old handsets from eBay, or I get donations of old handsets to play with, which cuts down on the costs considerably.

From Building to Flashing

After having trouble getting the Raspberry Pi phones to a level of functionality I could rely on, I decided that I didn't actually need to build the handset myself. At that point, I started getting old Android handsets and flashing over alternative operating systems. 

Three identical phones running three different alternative operating systems.
What it looks like when you successfully flash a phone. These three Nexus 5's are trying out three alternative operating systems, around 2016. 


This involved a few trade-offs, of course.

First, that meant I'd have to have an IMEI after all, which means I couldn't be completely untraceable. That said, being untraceable isn't always as much of a virtue for me as the question of data autonomy. Sometimes they are one and the same thing, but not always. And in this case, I would be willing to trade some traceability away, for the sake of having a device that I could truly trust to just keep my data where I put it.

Second, building on other peoples' hardware means I have to touch Googley things (ew!). I have to load up some version of Android and test the phone's functionality first. I have to run a set of Googley tools from the command line. I have to work from the bootloader screen which involves their little green robot staring at me.

I have come to peace with this. Sure, I never fail to grimace whenever I see GOOGLE flash across the startup screen, but I just remind myself it won't be Googely once I'm through with it in a few minutes' time (insert maniacal laughter here).

Third, none of these alternative operating systems are fully proprietary. This was the point in my Opt Out experiments where I was truly the beneficiary of and a participant in open source communities. They all have communities of like-minded, dedicated enthusiasts, keeping them afloat, contributing bug reports, building stuff, keeping old handsets alive.

Perhaps you just read Wikipedia articles but you haven't participated in an open source project before. If that's the case, note that a big difference with open source is that you can (and, arguably, should) find a way to give back to these communities. When you find something you really love, it's worth figuring out how to engage and be part of the group bringing it to life, answering questions for newcomers, trying out new features, and so on.

Being the beneficiary of these projects meant my tech choices were no longer entirely up to me. It wasn't a question of me dodging and evading systems bent on capture, looking for alternatives online and new startups to support. And it brought me face to face with the importance of working in community.

No one builds something as complicated as a fully functional smartphone alone at their kitchen table. Believe me, I tried! If we are to develop alternatives to the current state of affairs, we need to work together. We can't move the needle alone. 

Finally, they don't always work, alternative phones. Not every app is available. Stuff is buggy. Calls drop, signal drops, sometimes they reset themselves... It can be frustrating. That is okay with me, though, because when things work seamlessly it's usually because some company is after your data. I have embraced a more seamful lifestyle than most people I know. But some of them do work, at least 95% of the time, and that is good enough for me.

Certainly Sailfish is now dependable enough to be my primary phone, and I happily wax poetic about my favorite mobile operating system here.

Switching It Up

Welcome to my wild and wacky ride through my crazy cell phone collection.  A few premises to start:

These phones help me maintain my autonomy--as a person, a user, someone who isn't a data serf stuffing someone else's servers. That is my primary reason to use them. I want to know where my data is and, if it needs to move, sanction its transfer.

These phones don't (always) work.  Some of them work less than others ;) If you want to jump straight to the one that works the best, most of the time, for most of the things, that's been Sailfish for me. You can read more about them here. Note that I will wax poetic about them until the cows come home: you've been warned.

I am limited to a United States service provider. There are other alternatives out there, but given the different bands in different countries and the recent move to 5G, let's just say we don't always have the full spectrum of choices. More on that fiasco later. For now, I will just say that T-Mobile pre-paid has given me the most options and has been the most flexible, working on all of these alternative handsets. 

Finally, if you know of other phones I should try, send them my way!  Because as you'll soon discover, I really, really love alternative phones.

Maybe you will too.