First month with Graphene OS

Saturday, December 30, 2023

I usually switch between iOS and Android every 2 years or so. I do so because I grow bored and tired of the OS, and to confuse the enemy. But last time I switched from Android to iOS, I mostly did that because of growing privacy concerns. Stock iOS is more private than stock Android from Google. But Apple also seemed to care more about privacy. I would still rather use an iOS device over a stock Android device. But, a month ago, my friendship ended with iOS. Now Graphene OS is my friend. Graphene OS is a privacy-focused OS based on the open-source Android core.

After a long time of growing privacy concerns, the straw that broke the camel's back was the revelation that Apple hands out your data regardless of how much they preach privacy. My OS switch was due, so I grabbed myself a used Google Pixel 6a and installed Graphene OS using Mental Outlaw's guide. The installation went smoothly, and I was quickly up and running. I chose the Pixel 6a because it was available used for a good price, and it's still supported for Graphene OS.

You can find a lot of information on the ins and outs of Graphene OS, so I am not going into details with that. Graphene OS is "de-Googled," meaning that stuff like Google Play Services and the Play Store is not available. You can install it, though, but that would kind of defeat the point. You could do so on another user profile, though. Anyways. I live in Denmark, where pretty much everything is done using an app. And a lot of times, these apps require Google Play Services. Thankfully, Graphene OS comes with the possibility to install their sandboxed version of Google Play Services. It's a compatibility layer with the official Google Play Services app that allows apps to use it while keeping Google Play Services in the spotlight and under control. Running the sandboxed version of Google Play Services, I have yet to find an app that does not work.

Speaking of apps, how do I get the apps without Google Play Store? A good question, with multiple answers. At the low level, you can sometimes download the app file (.apk) directly from the internet. If you do so, make sure it's from an official source. Next up, there is something like F-Droid. This is kind of an app store, mostly filled with free open source apps. There is also Aptoide. Aptoide hosts some of the more popular apps that you might know. None of these requires you to create an account or sign in. But in my opinion, the most interesting alternative is the Aurora Store. Aurora Store is kind of a Google Play Store "client". Meaning, it has the same apps, and they are being downloaded from the Google Play Store, but there is a twist. You can download the apps without using a Google account. Aurora Store will spin up a random Google account when you use the app. So the app downloads are not tied to you personally, but a random account. This service is rate-limited though, but I have yet to hit the limit. If you would like to, you can also use Aurora Store with your own or a throwaway Google account. But then again, it kinda defeats the purpose.

Quick alternatives to Google apps:

Also. the camera app that comes with Graphene OS is not that good. But you can always use a third-party app. I use the Pixel Camera app from Google, with network connectivity disallowed.

So, everything is great. With one exception. MobilePay. I guess MobilePay is kinda like Venmo. And in Denmark, everybody is using it. So it's a must-have, and its absence is almost a deal-breaker. I downloaded MobilePay from Aptoide, but I hit a roadblock when I had to set it up. When you set up MobilePay on a new device, you have to authenticate using MitId (the country's official digital authentication method (you use it for everything (you can file or divorse or buy a house using it!))). Nothing new, I had to do the same with my banking app and other apps. But, for some reason, communication between MobilePay and MitId did not work. I was unable to authenticate, and thus unable to set up MobilePay. I have kept my iPhone around only for MobilePay, that is how essential the app is. But, tonight as of this writing, user Johnmhm on the Graphene OS forum found a workaround, and now MobilePay is working. Basically, you disable Vanadium (the Graphene OS default browser), install something like Brave or Chrome (god forbid) and set it as the default browser. Then you go through the MobilePay setup again, and it will work. After that, you can remove the browser you installed and enable Vanadium again. MobilePay is up and running, and I have an iPhone 12 for sale.

So that was my first month with Graphene OS. I don't think I will ever go back to using stock iOS or Android. As more and more information about abuse and misuse of your personal information and data, I have grown more and more concerned with my privacy. I have nothing to hide, but I still wouldn't want someone lurking through my windows in my house, which I kinda think is the same thing as harvesting everything you do on your digital devices. I sleep better at night, knowing that I have more digital privacy than yesterday. I am also just tired of everything being a service where you have to sign up and sign in, while having your every move tracked. This is also why I have been replacing Windows with Linux Mint on my computers. But more on that later.