Rants, Smartphones

Its the season to fight over iPhones and Android again

Every September or October, people start debating one of the most important choices in their lives – iPhone or Android. Already Apple haters reading this post are thinking of making a witty crack about how the price of an iPhone makes the decision a choice between food and clothing for a year vs. a half eaten apple you can’t even finish and therefore an important one.

To avowed Android fans, the eagerness exhibited by many to buy an iPhone represents everything wrong in the world. They consider the devices overpriced and the people who buy them snobbish fools who pay more for outdated tech. Apple fans on the other hand say they love the Apple experience and that Apple ‘does it right’, even if some of the features arrived first on Android. Android users tend to proclaim judgment about the people who buy into Apple a lot more than the other way around. As an Android ‘fan’ who switched to Apple a couple of years ago, I speak from personal experience. After years of being an advocate of Android, I put my beloved Nexus 4 in the cupboard and bought an iPhone 6. What surprised me more than how much I liked the phone was reactions from people around me. To many, it was nothing short of betrayal. They called me a sell out and declared that I had gone over to the dark side. Most of it was light hearted, but at least a couple of people really took it seriously and seemed to have changed their entire opinion about me based on my choice of phone. Most people never listened to my rationale for the switch but now that another iPhone and iOS version launched, the “you were one of us!” chorus has started again, so here it is:-

I used to really like Android. I would root every phone I bought and change the ROM faster than some people would change their socks. I would install apps to automate all kinds of weird things and even change the kernel to try and improve battery life or performance or whatever. Many a nights I would go home late from work, get bored in 20 minutes and then get to work installing a new custom ROM, only to have something go wrong and end up staying awake most of the night trying to make my phone functional again. It was pure tinkering joy at times and as good as a whiskey and a sad song at other times. The takeaway from this story is, I was NOT a casual Android user. When self proclaimed Android ‘fans’ come at me for my choice to switch, I look at them like how Amitabh Bachchan in Agneepath would look at Hrithik Roshan in Agneepath, or how Sylvestor Stallone in Rambo would look at Tiger Shroff in Rambo (yes, that’s coming soon, believe it or not).

However, over time I started noticing a disturbing and growing problem with Android, the invasive presence of Google. Android was supposed to be an open source OS unlike Apple’s proprietary and closed down iOS. To most technophiles, open source is like Gangajal and that tag alone is enough to approve of Android. But is it really open source? The core of the operating system still is, but Google has been adding a proprietary layer of its own apps on every critical part of the system. Search (on device), messaging, dialer, camera- all of these used to be AOSP (Android Open Source Project), but over time pretty much everything got replaced by a default Google app- a closed source, proprietary one of course. Of course some of those can be replaced by third party apps you can install but there’s another problem- the Google Play Services Framework. A mysterious thing that acts as a backbone for all Google apps and services on the phone. You can root your phone and strip it of Google Play Services but then nothing worth using will work on the phone. Your play store won’t work so there goes your apps for Facebook, Uber, Maps, etc. There are other open source app stores you can use but none of these apps will be available on those. So basically if you want to use your Android phone as a smartphone, Google stays, like a demon possessing a nun. This in itself doesn’t sound like a bad thing but take a close look at the 80 odd permissions given to Google Play Services Framework, which is not even a visible app. Basically you have a technically open source operating system on your phone but you can use it only if you give Google every possible privacy permission.

I kept fighting a losing battle to safeguard some semblance of privacy on my Android device. When you use an Android, you can’t help sign into Google on the phone. Once you do that, the phone saves pretty much everything you do on it on the cloud in your Google account. Everything you search from chrome or through the search bar should have got saved in your account. Go to myactivity.google.com and see for yourself. If your account is a few years old, you’re sure to find something deeply embarassing there. Do you have location services enabled? Of course you would have turned it on to use maps or Uber or at the very least to keep your anti theft app or Google device manager running. If its on, a map of everywhere you have gone is saved in your Google account. You can go in there and look around to find out exactly where you where at what time, see if you went to any place unusual in your usual route, etc. Then of course, there’s your photos. Has anyone figured out how to stop photos from getting backed up to Google? I used to keep turning it off in 2-3 places and somehow it still ended up getting uploaded. Your call logs and text messages are probably getting backed up as well. It will show you faces of people arranged in what looks like the frequency at which you click them. When you try to tag one of them with a name, a pop up shows you your most frequent contacts which I assume is from the call logs. I checked on my dad’s phone and got enough data in 2 seconds to argue which child of his calls him more often and who is favored by him (pics). With AI these days being able to detect smiles, I wonder how long it will take for the system to understand how happy people look in pictures with some people vs. with others.

If all this intimate data being in the hands of a company doesn’t disturb you, think if someone else manages to hack into your account? What can a thief do if he knows your precise location history? Maybe your password is good but have you reused it on another website that might get hacked? Even if you have perfect passwords, you have to admit that the vast majority of people don’t, and most of them are using a phone that uploads all of it to a single account online which is protected by a password like ‘password123’. And the even more disturbing thing is that most people don’t even realize all this stuff has got saved on the cloud because Google deliberately uses vague, wishy washy language about using your data to help you instead of telling you clearly what data will go where if you turn this on. For example, when you log into ‘my activity’ in Google, this is what the pop up shows:

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A more accurate description would be “Information about your sexual preferences, political allegiances, medical issues, where you go everyday and who you talk to is saved here”. But of course, when your activity helps make your Google experience faster and more useful, you wouldn’t mind ‘rediscovering’ things.

The way I saw it, Google had turned the device in my pocket into a direct data tap on my life and I just wasn’t comfortable with it. I kept trying to fight it with apps like Xprivacy which worked with root access to give fake data when required but one Android update killed that app (not deliberately but it wasn’t compatible) and it took them about a year to get it working again. Trying to stop Google from getting all my data was like trying to hold water in my hand at best and at worst like having a direct firehose from my pocket to them. And it wasn’t just Google getting the data too. In spite of occasional permission model improvements, most apps easily get data in the Android architecture. For example, the latest Android lets you grant or deny specific permissions like location access to an app instead of giving the app all the permissions it asks or not use it like before. But if you have given location access to say 3 apps, even when you are using only 1 of those apps or aren’t using any of the apps, all of those apps can get your location. So if you have given Uber location access to book a cab, the app can still access your location when you don’t have any app open. You might have given tripadvisor location access during a vacation but you won’t realize the app is still tracking you until you get a notification sometime with recommendations for places to visit in the city you just arrived at. Now you have a data tap by Google with others siphoning from that hose as well, and you’ll end up installing a lot of random apps. How do you know which ones are trustworthy and not? Forgot about the flashlight app that was tracking people’s location?

When people hear all this, they react in two ways:- either they get creeped out or they think this is all too much to think about and that they are sure everything will be fine. People who reacted in the second way usually tell me I’m paranoid, or that data is the new oil and not a big deal, or that privacy doesn’t matter anymore. And of course the classic “I don’t need privacy because I have nothing to hide” argument. If you have arguments along those lines, let me just say that a 9 member bench of the Indian Supreme Court recently decided that privacy is a fundamental right that needs to be protected to ensure life with dignity, so this is hardly something which was dreamed up by tin foil hat wearers.

The way I saw it, I had a bad choice to make. Choose between cheap but perfectly functional phones that sell my soul megabits at a time or choose a very expensive phone which does less of that. Once I could afford to, I chose the second option. Do I wish there was a 3rd option? Yes, but unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world. In the real world, I’m reasonably satisfied with my choice given the circumstances.

In my opinion, I didn’t sell out Android. Android sold me out, to Google.

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