Earlier this month, I wrote about a desire that many readers have expressed to use Android and yet limit their exposure to Google. The feedback to this article was all over the map, as one might expect. So I’d like to address that and explain where my head is at.
First of all, if you truly want to eliminate Google from your life, you can’t use Android. And that leaves you with the iPhone, which is a fine choice: Apple’s mobile platform is reliable, stable, and fast, it offers the best apps and content ecosystems, and the devices themselves are beautiful and of high quality. You can’t go wrong with an iPhone.
But that’s not what this article series is about, of course. This is about using Android.
And to be clear, Android has a long list of advantages over the iPhone. These advantages explain why the vast majority of people, worldwide, use Android and not iPhone. Among them, of course, is the ability to customize Android to a degree that is simply not possible on iPhone. And most certainly never will be.
The question, then, becomes one of degree. And of effectiveness: You could remove most Google apps from your phone, disconnect from Google services where possible, and it’s likely—certain—that Google would still be able to track you via your use of Android. Are you willing to accept that? Is it enough to minimize your exposure to Google? Especially when it’s not even clear how effective some of these actions will be.
I don’t know.
Like many of you, I’m concerned about the insidious nature of Google’s sprawling, privacy-invading, advertising-based business model. But like many of you, I’m also resigned to the fact that some Google apps and services are so indispensable that fully eliminating the search giant from my life is impossible. And that leaves an opening for Google to have its way with my privacy.
Does that bother me? It’s a trade-off. The reason I or any other thinking person would willingly use Google apps or services while knowing that the company that makes them is surreptitiously collating all that data in the cloud and building an informed target for advertisers is that those solutions are best-of-breed. It’s the only reason that makes sense. And I’m sorry, but some Google apps and services really are best-of-breed.
The list of Google solutions one can’t live without will vary by person. For me, that list includes Google Maps, Google Photos, and Google Chrome. It also includes Google Inbox, but the company is stupidly killing Inbox in early 2019, so I’ve been looking around for a suitable alternative.
I happen to prefer Google Assistant over other digital personal assistants, and I have made the bet that this platform will win out. So we have Google Home and Smart Display devices in our home, and a variety of Google Chromecast Audio dongles that we use for whole-house audio. We also use Google Wifi, which provides mesh home networking capabilities. So I’m more than a bit in the ecosystem, especially when you look past the phone.
And I also use other Google solutions, like Google Play Music, and of course, the Google phone, messaging, and camera apps on my Pixel. But those are all easily replaced, or at least have non-objectionable non-Google alternatives. I wouldn’t call any of them mission critical. They’re just there. But they’re also little data points for Google. Each informs the company about me in some way and rounds out its profile of me that it provides to advertisers.
In other words, my own efforts to minimize Google on Android will be largely futile. I’m already in the search giant’s back pocket. And I have already seen many examples of how trackers can lead to targeted ads in what seem like nonsensical situations.
So the question for you is this. Given that the very act of using an Android handset guarantees that Google will know something about you, does it still make sense to limit, to the degree that you are comfortable, how much information it gets?
Put more simply, I consider using the Google Play Store—e.g. using “Android”—to be the minimum for this platform. But you have to sign-in with your Google account to the Google Play Store. So even if you skipped the sign-in during the initial phone set up, you will still be signing in. Your Google account will be registered with the handset. And that system-level tracking will be engaged. You can’t stop it.
Can you minimize it? Probably. But this is where we get into an unknowable area because Google has already been proven to ignore user-accessible settings in Android related to tracking. Whether that is malicious or not is unclear. As is whether it’s just the tip of the iceberg: Is Google secretly tracking all kinds of things without or knowledge?
I believe that it is. And I write that as a sane and logical person, not as a conspiracy theorist. It would be naive, given Google’s business model and history, to not believe that it is doing everything it can to build the best-possible profile of its users that it can. To benefit advertisers.
Since writing that first article, I’ve investigated what one can do to minimize Google on an Android handset. Some of it is obvious: You can use alternative apps and services, replace the launcher, replace the keyboard, replace the digital assistant. This is almost still certainly worth discussing. But it doesn’t really cut to the heart of the matter.
No, the central issue is tracking, especially location tracking, but not only location tracking. And I’m just not sure.
This kind of uncertainty is troubling. When I write a book like Windows 10 Field Guide, or smaller and individual tips and how-tos for this website, I’m looking for certainty. For reproducible steps that will work every time. Not for something that “may” work. Hey, you never know.
Removing apps and replacing Google solutions with alternatives is straightforward. It’s a certainty. But disabling Google services and trackers? It may work. Hey, you never know.
So I will keep investigating this. Even with my over-exposure to Google, I’m interested in minimizing where it’s possible and, more important, where it’s meaningful. But this isn’t about me: I also realize that this is of great interest to many readers too. And as always, I’m relying on your feedback to make sure I’m heading in the right direction.
What I’m not interested in is partisan nonsense. Alternatives to Android. Not using the Google Play Store. This is about Android, period. What can we do?