Learn how to reach optimal mobile OS privacy. In this article, we will focus on the open-source operating systems, so we will review LineageOS privacy features.
In this and the following posts, we will introduce mobile OSs. They are widely used and it is therefore important to bring privacy to your handset. In this series, we will review the OSs iOS, Android, LineageOS and other custom ROMs with privacy features in mind.
This article is part of a series, all 6 parts are here:
In “Mobile OSs 1 - Android Privacy Features Review“, we have explained why Android is one of the worst OSs for privacy advocates, you could think of. Unfortunately, the other smartphone giant Apple and their iOS operating system is also not ideal. Therefore, the only smart choice is to look for alternatives, which we will introduce now.
Let us start with a recommendation: We advise you to use LineageOS instead. LineageOS is essentially Android, but without Google. It is a modified version of Android, without all the spyware that Google added. It is a so-called custom ROM for Android smartphones. Custom ROMs are custom firmware that is written by a 3rd party as an alternative to the firmware provided by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
They are called ROMs, since they are written to read-only memory (ROM), which is a location of memory where data is only read from and not written to, during the normal operation of the system. However, that does not mean that the contents of ROM are never changed: During the original installation of the firmware, during updates or when installing a custom ROM, data is written to this memory.
In essence, a custom ROM means that you will install the OS on the phone yourself. There are guides online on how to do that and with which phones it works. LineageOS offers almost all Android features, but in a completely free and open-source OS without spyware.
LineageOS developed from the now discontinued CyanogenMod, another custom ROM that was very popular in the past. That is actually where LineageOS got its name from. It is related to CyanogenMod, so it was called “Lineage” and the version numbers of LineageOS go on from where CyanogenMod left off. System and Kernel, as well as many apps (e.g. Exact Calculator CyanogenMod ==> LineageOS) were simply cloned and developed further. Since it retained the old version format, the first LineageOS releases were 13 and 14.1 beta.
We will now go on to explain why LineageOS is our favourite operating system for privacy on mobile: LineageOS lets you change permissions of apps at any time and is focused on privacy. It offers updates, even for old devices and pre-installed apps are open-source. Installing LineageOS might be a bit of a hassle, but you will be rewarded with privacy, freedom from Google and customisation options. To be honest, it is actually not hard at all. We have installed it on multiple devices and you quickly get the hang of using the necessary command-line tools and custom recovery.
Customisation is possible for visual and functional parts of Lineage OS. You can for example completely change the look of the launcher. That is the part you see on the home screen and it can be altered by changing the settings of the pre-installed launcher Trebuchet (XDA Developer Forum).
In our opinion, the default Trebuchet launcher is much better than the GUI of Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel devices, so you do not really have to change anything.
We love this ROM for so many reasons. For us privacy advocates, the LineageOS Privacy Guard is a better permission control system than what have seen in any Android or iOS release. You might think that you could reach the same privacy on Android by giving apps less permissions, but that is false. There are thousands of apps that simply ignore their permissions and access your data anyway. That is why we really need a tool like Lineage’s Privacy Guard.
Let us talk a bit more about customisation options: The theme manager is so much better than comparable options on Android, you have a system-wide audio equalizer and most importantly freedom. LineageOS is an honest operating system.
Android on the other hand is far from open-source. Many popular websites and magazines on smartphones will tell you that being open-source is a thing that makes Android awesome, but that is a lie. Instead, Google uses the fake transparency it gets from the open-source base to conceal all the disgusting and disgraceful data collection by their proprietary spyware. They do the exact same thing with the open-source base of Google Chrome and Chrome OS, i.e. the Chromium Project and the Chromium OS Project. We would much rather have a closed-source OS from Google than having them sell you their data-collection tools under the guise of open-source software.
That was a lot of information on how malicious Google’s OSs are. Luckily, there is light at the end of the tunnel, so keep on reading.
We are privileged to live in a time where you can get things like LineageOS on the internet and get away from Google. It is nice to see that the LineageOS developers actually made an awesome, fast, fully open-source and privacy-friendly OS from the rock-solid Android Open Source Project’s source code. For us, it is the ideal replacement for Android.
A cool little feature of LineageOS is that when you search in the settings and type in only one letter, it shows names of developers as results. When you click on them, it opens a word cloud in the shape of the LineageOS logo. The developer and his/her number of contribution will then be marked in the word cloud.
By the way, thanks to the devs for all the fantastic LineageOS privacy features!
Google hate CyanogenMod/LineageOS so much that they even threatened the developers with a cease-and-desist order. Since then the custom ROM anymore.
LineageOS has a privacy management panel called Security & Location. From there, you can open the Trust interface. The Trust interface has a menu called Privacy Guard, which lets you edit the permissions of apps,. You can deny access to contacts, geolocation, camera, settings, storage and much more. This way, the apps you install cannot read your data from memory and cannot share it Google, governments or companies.
Other things you can do in the Trust interface are changing settings for SELinux, checking root access if you have rooted the device, encrypting your device with strong AES encryption and restricting USB access to prevent an attacker from manipulating your device by installing malware over USB.
Since all Android features, except for data collection, are available, you will not miss out on anything you loved about your Android device. We find it great that LineageOS makes buying a new phone every two years unnecessary, since you will get LineageOS updates even if the official Android support for your device has ended. Those updates will be based on the most recent Android version, so you get the new features.
If you have never installed a custom ROM, LineageOS is the easiest and best for beginners. On the LineageOS website, you can find a list with all supported devices.