Google's Android mobile platform is clearly a lot more open and free than Apple's competing iOS is, but proprietary drivers and data-collecting apps still pose a significant threat to users' freedom.
That's according to the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), which launched a new campaign earlier this week urging users to take steps to liberate their Android devices.
"Users deserve to have full control over their mobile devices," explained Torsten Grote, FSFE member and initiator of the campaign, in the group's announcement of its new “Free Your Android” campaign. "If your phone runs Free Software, you're in charge. If it runs proprietary software, you're handing control of your digital life to manufacturers and app developers."
'A threat to democracy'
Many mobile apps spy on their users without their knowledge, the FSFE points out, citing the Carrier IQ scandal from late last year as an example.
Meanwhile, “convenient solutions for synchronisation and data backup trick more and more people into storing all their data on centralised servers run by some profit driven corporation,” the group notes. “Whoever has personal information about us is able to manipulate us. Therefore non-free devices are a threat to democracy and to our society.”
As for the devices themselves, they may be completely locked down or they may prevent users from uninstalling certain apps. Software updates are often available only as long as the manufacturer still has a commercial interest in your device, the FSFE points out.
Three steps for freedom
With the help of German privacy organisation FoeBuD, the new Free Your Android campaign aims to help users regain control of their Android devices and their data. Toward that end, it offers suggestions in three key areas:
1. The operating system
In addition to proprietary components and add-ons, some phones also have a locked boot loader that prevents you from booting and installing other operating systems. So, if you're in the market for an Android phone, the FSFE urges you to make sure that the boot loader can be unlocked, and it points to a page on the CyanogenMod wiki that provides a wealth of information on that topic.
The FSFE also recommends Replicant OS, an Android distribution that it says is fully free.
Not many phones can run Replicant, however; for those that can't, the FSFE recommends CyanogenMod instead.
2. The apps
Because the Android Market doesn't generally indicate whether an app is free software or not - and because it requires a Google account - the FSFE recommends avoiding it. As an alternative, the group suggests using F-Droid, a repository of easily installable free software for Android. An Android client app makes it easy to browse free software applications on F-Droid, as well as to install them and keep track of updates. Also included when available is information about how to donate money to apps' authors.
Last but not least, the FSFE recommends several free software alternatives to the services typically used for synchronising contacts, calendars, and other data with other devices. Among them are ACal, kolab-android, and SSH Daemon dropbear.