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October 4, 2020

If you need Android, why not consider privacy respecting custom ROMS?

As this year of 2020, which has arguably become the year of the Linux phone, goes on, people who have the option of picking up a device such as a Pinephone may wonder how they will continue to use those Android apps they have become reliant on for things like work or convenience in their day to day lives.

In my case, I still do a lot of Android development (I have a few apps I am working on that I will be submitting to F-Droid as well as releasing on this site). I also really like the looks of modern Android and how it functions, but I cannot stand that standard Android devices ship with proprietary Google Services and the tracking and other privacy issues that come with having all of the Google and other proprietary junk on your device.

The cool thing about Android.

Unlike Apple phones and tablets which are locked down by default, you do have some options when it comes to preserving your privacy on some Android devices. You can install what is known as a custom ROM, or a fork of the Android Open Source Project (known as AOSP). This is a modified version of Android which you can choose to keep Google Apps (known as GApps) and Google Services out of, as well as having the freedom to run nothing but free and open source applications from privacy respecting app stores if you would like.

How does it work

If you've never thought about something like this before, then it might seem like a bit of a daunting process. Luckily, if you are just starting out, you don't have to be a technical genius when it comes to putting a custom Android ROM on your phone. You can find all sorts of documentation on various custom ROM forums and YouTube videos. I'm even considering writing up my own simple tutorial to help folks who are thinking about installing a custom ROM on their own Android device.

if you decide to install a custom Android ROM on your phone:

On that last point...

Remember that all Android ROMS are written for a specific device and then ported to others. As such, you will have to know what device you have and make sure that the ROM you would like to put on your phone is supported by the developers of that ROM. If it is not, you could request support, or if you know what you are doing, you could even attempt to port it yourself.

However, when downloading an image of the Android OS you are looking to flash on your phone, make sure it matches up with the codename of your phone. For example, I run LineageOS on my Essential PH-1 phone, which is my current daily driver. It is free of all Google services and apps, and used only with free software. In order for me to flash LineageOS on my device, I had to identify the codename of my Android phone (in this case, it is mata) and download the appropriate LineageOS image for the device. Flashing the wrong image to your device could result in hard bricking it, so always make sure you double-check before flashing any ROM to your device.

Can you put GNU/Linux operating systems on Android devices?

This depends on the phone you have. Right now, your best bet if you want a true Linux phone is to order a Pinephone or preorder a Librem 5. However, if you want to see what a Linux phone is all about and have a supported device sitting around, you could test out a couple of different offerings for Android devices. For example, Ubuntu Touch is supported on several different Android devices, prominently the Nexus 5, Oneplus One, and several others. You will also find that the popular PostmarketOS offers images for select Android devices. If you want to get down and dirty into the code and try your hand at bringing Linux support to an Android device that is not currently supported, attempt to port it to your device or contribute to a port that is already in progress for the same device.

What are some of the best Custom ROMs for Android devices?

There are several freedom and privacy respecting Android ROMs out there. I have also considered doing my own custom ROM in the future, though I have not decided on this for sure yet. As of now, when I am using my Android device, I run LineageOS with zero Google applications or services. I also use F-Droid as my app store. I will put some of the best resources for learning about custom ROMs and free software for Android below.

Popular Custom ROMs for Android

Here are some of the most popular Android ROMs out there. I have personally tested each of these on different devices. My current main Android device is my Essential PH-1 running LineageOS 17.1.

Other resources

Here are some important resources if you are interested in learning more about custom ROMs and how they help you preserve your privacy and truly own your device, or if you are a developer interested in contributing to custom ROM development or even building your own version of Android.

What will you do?

If you are using a standard Google Android, or even worse, an iPhone, what are you going to do? Do you want to continue letting the big tech companies spy on you and continue to nab up your private data through the devices you own and interact with every day, or would you rather break off those digital chains and reclaim your online freedom? With some changes in how you approach the internet and what type of software you use, you will find that you can get some of your digital freedom back, and not have all of your personal data collected by companies and advertisers.

Sometimes, this means giving some convenience, but what you get in return is even better than that. You are doing your part to keep Big Tech at bay during a time when we are seeing our privacy eroded before our very eyes, and our most personal data stolen and sold to the highest bidder without our consent.

Will you continue to be a sheep, or will you say no to big data collection and spying by using free software and taking back control of your computing?

The choice is yours, so choose freedom with free/libre and open source software!