Cyberpunk Alternatives to Data Tracking OS
You can’t call yourself a cyberpunk if you accept that your every virtual and physical move is being watched, but you don’t take any steps to change that fact.
Actually, you can call yourself what you like. I’m not the word police. I’m just some guy on the internet.
For three days in October 2019, I spent my time loitering around prominent buildings and privately owned public spaces in Liverpool, a northern English city. It was cold. To anyone who cared enough to watch my movements, I looked like an idiot as at forty odd points internal and external to any number of buildings, I took out my Android handset and stared fixedly at it for a couple of minutes before snapping a photograph and moving a dozen or so meters further along.
The handset was provided by a company which, for legal reasons, I can’t name in print. It was a £50 Nuu A4L, which promised and delivered the basics and nothing more. The most important functionalities were that it had a good GPS receiver and reliable Wi-Fi.
I knew when I signed up that what I would be doing (gathering information for a location tracking system) would be tedious. But it paid £450 (plus a free phone) for a couple of days work. My car needed new brakes and Christmas is always an expensive time of year.
Like all other Android users, I knew about adverts and about how tracking companies would follow me around the internet if I wasn’t running a customized Android OS which prevented such behaviour. As a hobbyist app developer, I was even aware of shady third party companies which would pay to have their software back-end embedded into an existing app where it could do shady things without the user’s knowledge or explicit consent.
Things like crypto mining, contact trawling, device analytics and real world location tracking, where companies such as Placed would constantly report your location to anyone who was interested, simply by having an app on your phone which happened to have their SDK embedded. So long as you had location services turned on.
At one point, Placed claim to have penetration into two thirds of all smartphones (both Android and iOS) in the US.
But that was OK. I was a smart guy and I took precautions. I didn’t have location services on unless strictly necessary, and I was always at pains to read through any terms of services and privacy policies.
Wi-Fi Maps and GPS Locations
The company for whom I was working in October last year was different.
Every time I ran the app they provided for me, I was creating a map of all available WiFi signals in the area and making sure that they were backed up by precise GPS coordinates and photos.
Doing evil stuff for money gets boring really fast.
This is how it works:
If you’re in range of a Wi-Fi network with a unique name, that network will be searchable on a database. You’re findable anywhere in the world to within a dozen or so meters.
If you’re within range of two or three networks, the overlap will have you pinned to within a couple of feet.
For instance, if you’re on the top floor of Liverpool Central library, the relative strength of the wireless signals will tell the company’s software, which is hidden inside a completely different app on your phone, your location with a probably precision of inches. Anyone who cares to pay for the information will know that you’ve been visiting the public records archives, the Jewish history section and taken a swing by to check out LGBQTX rights as well. It’s intensely personal real-world tracking, and you don’t even know it’s going on.
I do though. Because I took pictures of the books.
Other places I visited and mapped were museums, shopping centres, and both cathedrals, which included venturing into all corners and alcoves of the side chapels. There’s someone up there who knows whether your attending a christening in the baptistry or paying attention to particular stations of the cross. It isn’t any sort of god.
Do I sound like a villain yet? To me, I sound like a villain. The shock was so great that it managed to jerk me out of the cozy, comfortable embrace of the Android operating system and away from Google altogether. Any tracking I had previously accepted as just part of the way the world works was no longer acceptable.
The company I was conducted the research for was far from the only player in the field.
I had never realized how insidious, invidious, and how unavoidably invasive this tracking was. How it could follow me into the real world, and how there was absolutely no way of defending against it. Turning off location tracking won’t work because it doesn’t use any of the conventional means for stalking me. You could, I suppose, keep your WiFi turned off at all times. But then why bother having a smartphone. You could just not install any apps which aren’t created by Google, because at least then you know who’s stalking you.
Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic and the frantic efforts by national governments to develop and deploy an effective contact tracing system, it has continually struck me as ironic that there are private entities which already have the infrastructure and means in place.
They haven’t said anything, but then again, nor have I.
This explanation isn’t strictly necessary for an article on an alternative OS, but it may help you to know where I’m coming from and that while I am most certainly very paranoid, maybe you should be too.
Accepting this kind of bullshit and choosing to ignore it in exchange for an easy life, is normal. I’m not going to judge you either way.
Go Hard or Go Home: Alternative Mobile Operation Systems
Believe it or not, there are other mobile operating systems available besides the monoliths of Android and iOS. Some of these are build on the Linux base and employ, as far as is possible, completely free and open source code. Others are built on Android.
The great thing about Open Source Software is that the source code is available for inspection. If you’re concerned it’s up to something nefarious, you can read through.
If you have the expertise, you can see whether or not it’s doing what it says it is. Even if you can’t interpret the code, there will be someone, somewhere, who is even more paranoid than me who will have done it for you and flagged up any potential privacy issues.
Sailfish OS is very polished. It looks like Android and it is capable of running Android apps. This was a sticking point for me. Being followed around by Google isn’t the worst thing in the world, it’s the others. Having the ability to install any Android compatible software would leave me wide open to exactly what I was trying to avoid. Sailfish is also proprietary.
There were a couple more supposedly privacy respecting Open Source custom ROMs, but I wanted nothing to do with Android.
Eventually I settled on Ubuntu Touch. There were no other functional options.
Living with Ubuntu Touch
You may have heard of Ubuntu Touch. It was billed as the next big thing for the open source movement in the early 2010s. It was going to be an ethical alternative to the big players in the market and bring a breath of Linux scented fresh air to the mobile space. as well as convergence between desktop and mobile.
That never happened. Ubuntu touch was unceremoniously dumped by Canonical in 2017, and left to fester until a small team of volunteers collectively known as UBPorts tenderly picked its unloved corpse and resuscitated it with the breath of Open Source goodness.
This time last year, the OS could only reliably run on four handsets: The Nexus 4, Nexus 5, OnePlus One and the Fairphone 2. You’ll note that none of these are particularly recent, and the technical reasons for this are detailed here should you care to look. Both the OS and the compatibility have moved on from then. I picked up a OnePlus One for £45 from Ebay. Following the idiot-proof instructions, took a step into the unknown.
Ubuntu Touch is a fully fledged and complete OS, but it’s like taking the DeLorian back to maybe 2009 and the final days of Windows mobile. Not the Windows Phone you know and hated up until Microsoft ditched it altogether in 2017, the one which came before the iPhone was even a lecherous twinkle in Steve Job’s eye.
Nothing is as simple as it could be or works as easily as you would like. There’s no Swype or swiftkey keyboard to make text entry faster and there’s no WhatsApp. So if you want to talk to your buds in a group chat, you’ll need to either persuade them to jump ship across to Telegram, Signal, or Matrix or set up Whatsapp on another device which you bury at the back of a drawer somewhere and use the WhatsApp webapp on your UT device.
Or just do what I did. Stop talking to people.
Here’s how Ubuntu Touch compares in a few key areas.
That penguin is probably older than most of our readers
Apps on Ubuntu Touch
The app landscape is sparse on Ubuntu Touch. Project leaders believe the OS has maybe 5,000 to 10,000 users in total. They don’t know for sure because they don’t embed any kind of analytics or telemetry on devices so they’re making a best guess based on the number of downloads of the most recent OS version. It could be one guy installing the image over and over again. It might just be m here on my own.
Of those 5,000 or so users, there are a hard core who actively create or port apps for the platform.
To the left of this column is the front page of the appstore (called OpenStore) looks like.
Pretty sparse. The current headliner is Tux Racer, a 3D racing game featuring a penguin who slides down the icy slopes of his homeland, while attempting to scoop up herring. If you’ve been part of the Linux ecosystem for any length of time, you’ll have come across Tux before.
Games is the most populous category of the store, with an epic 166 entries. There are also categories for communication and social, education and reference, books and so on.
Don’t get too excited though. Most of these aren’t actually native games and apps which will run on your handset. They’re webapps.
Ubuntu Touch Webapps
The ability to create webapps quickly and on device is one of the best things about Ubuntu Touch. In essence, it means with a little configuration, a browser is created which runs in its own container, separate from the rest of the system.
Essentially it’s a customizable shortcut, but you can configure what rights the browser instance has. Microphone and speakers for example. Whether or not it has an address bar or navigation buttons. Can it store cookies or visit any other site? You decide.
If for some reason you do need to visit a google site or maybe you can’t live without Facebook, by accessing it through a webapp, you have complete control over what information the site can get from you.
Webapps are extra useful if you’re if your attempting to flush out the tech giants from other areas of your life as it presents an easy way of interacting with the services you run on your own servers at home.
Instead of a Spotify or Netflix app, I have a webapp which connects me straight to my Jellyfin server. Instead of using Google News, I created a webapp which connects to my FreshRSS instance and delivers a constant stream of full articles without me ever needing to visit any site not under my direct control. I have webapps for everything which runs remotely on my Raspberry Pi -based home server from my photo gallery to my Nextcloud recipe manager.
A Photoprism webapp which acts as a replacement for Google Photos
I think webapps are cool.
Communication Issues with Niche Mobile Operating Systems
Yeah, no Whatsapp. That sucks balls. Until ditching my droid, I was a member of three WhatsApp groups. It was the default communications platform used by everyone in my extended family and my very limited friendgroup.
WhatsApp’s API changes frequently, and it’s a ballache to get working on UT. Sure, there are workarounds, but they’re ballaches as well. At some point you have to realize that, no, it’s just not going to work. Console yourself that Whatsapp is a wholly owned Facebook company, and you’re probably better off staying away from that toxic company anyway.
Instead, we have Telegram. Well, a Telegram client. It’s called TELEports and is developed and maintained by a dude called Florian Lieber, single-handedly as far as I can tell. It’s good for sending messages and pictures, but that’s it. No voice or video calls as yet. But as a way of keeping in touch with disparate groups of people and holding multiple conversations, it’s pretty good.
There are also a couple of Signal clients, but currently I don’t feel that I can recommend them.
Voice calls are good. Text messages work. There’s an email client called Dekko 2, which does exactly what you’d expect of an email client.
And then, there are the matrix clients such as Fluffychat, which allows you to interact through your own matrix server which is assumed to be running on your own hardware somewhere. I don’t run a matrix server for the basic reason that I don’t know anyone else who does either. I’d be communicating with myself.
Getting around places using only your mobile phone instead of an armful of atlases is a feature of 21st century life. Android and iOS have a number of ways of finding out your exact position. These include using navigation satellites, triangulating from phone masts and, of course having a database of every Wi-Fi router names.
Naturally, Ubuntu Touch only has one of these options. Mapping WiFi router names is unethical and expensive, while buying into the database of cell tower locations is just expensive. Receiving satellite signals is free.
Android users will be used to turning on their location and getting a fix almost instantly. With Ubuntu Touch, it can take anywhere between two and 20 minutes, depending on weather conditions and what satellites are overhead.
But you won’t be re-routed due to traffic updates. When in standing traffic, the display will swing wildly around as your device fails to orient itself correctly.
Still better than the alternative
Entertainment on Ubuntu Touch
UT comes with a music player baked in. It’s called ‘Music’ and plays MP3 files. It also shows the cover art, allows browsing by recent, album, artist, genre, tracks and playlists.
If you want to play other local media, you’ll want ‘Media Player’ which does exactly what you think it does.
I don’t use either of these. Instead, I stream from my Jellyfin media server through a webapp I created especially for that purpose. I believe that the web version of Spotify works, but Netflix does not.
Ebooks are handled by Sturm Reader, but there is no option of having the software read aloud to you.
It’s a 2015 OnePlus One. It takes pictures. The zoom function doesn’t work. That’s it.
What’s this about Linux?
Yes. You heard right. Ubuntu Touch is a complete Linux OS. Almost everything which can be installed on an ARM based desktop Linux system will run on a UT phone. You can browse software on the Ubuntu Software store, and you can install the desktop version of Firefox.
It’s practically unusable on a five inch screen, but Ubuntu Touch has another trick.
You can connect a monitor, you can connect a Bluetooth mouse,and a Bluetooth keyboard. This is when the ability to run desktop software comes into its own. It’s a desktop PC in your pocket.
This is something I’ve never tried. I have more than enough Linux systems scattered throughout my house and no need for another one, but I can vouch for at least some of the desktop software working on mobile.
The Bottom Line About Niche Mobile Operating Systems
If you’re looking to jump ship from Android or iOS while keeping Apple and Google as part of your extended family, forget about it. Ubuntu Touch probably isn’t for you. It just doesn’t play particularly nicely with services provided by either of the giants. If you want Gmail with push notifications and Google Maps on the go, buy an Android. If you can’t live without iTunes, go Apple.
There is no area in which Ubuntu Touch performs better than the offerings from Google and Apple. From a pure usability point of view, they’re better in almost every conceivable way. But that’s not really the point.
Where Ubuntu Touch excels is with people who don’t want every detail of their life tracked and who have decided to make a complete and clean break. For people like me who run their own services rather than relying on any of the tech monoliths, Ubuntu Touch makes it easy to stay secure and unmonitored.