The Price of Privacy on Android. A CalyxOS Story.

The Price of Privacy on Android. A CalyxOS Story.

My story starts a few weeks ago with a stock Google Pixel Fold. I’d been enjoying the device for a number of months after taking the gamble of replacing an older Samsung phone and Apple iPad with a single all-purpose phone. Overall I was satisfied, but out of the blue my foldable screen decided to stop working. Luckily I was able to RMA the device for a free repair, but that’s not the story I am telling today. That’s only where we begin.

The device arrived home, repaired, and I realized I had a small window of opportunity and a choice to make. Do I simply restore my backup and go back to my life as nothing happened, or do I take the opportunity to try an alternative version of Android? If you know me at all you also know that’s mostly a rhetorical question. I was already on the CalyxOS website before I had fully unpacked the package.

CalyxOS, if you are not aware, is one of the very few alternative operating systems for Android devices. There are a handful of others, but for reasons we aren’t going to discuss here, I decided to go with it. Mostly because it was top of mind as I knew it was compatible with my device.

As my phone was already backed up I jumped into the installation which was very well documented, easy to follow and worked the first time. Well, other than the normal USB cable shenanigans that need to be played when dealing with any devices.

I was pretty happy with what I saw on first boot. Things were themed. The phone felt familiar. It gave me the choice of gesture movements (which I had been missing from my Pixel) and overall felt like not much had changed. I was happy.

I spent the next few days slowly re-installing and configuring my phone. It was a little more involved since I couldn’t just restore my Google One backup, but I knew that would be the case going in to the experience. There would be trade-offs. I knew there would be trade-offs. Obviously the phone was focused on privacy, but I was about to learn at what costs and quirks that would encompass.

I couldn’t set my wallpaper.

None of my normal methods of setting the wallpaper worked. I can’t even recall how I found out how to do it now, but it wasn’t until after I had already found and downloaded (and uninstalled) a wallpaper management app that I accidentally stumbled on a new way to manage it that I got it to change. This was just weird. It didn’t seem to be about privacy, but it was inconveniently different. I got over it.

I couldn’t use any integrations with morning alarms.

I had a pretty neat setup of playing songs on Youtube Music and automations through Google Assistant previously setup for when it was time to wake up. I can concede the Google Assistant going away makes sense for privacy as it’s most definately cloud connected, but the loss of the feature of playing a song from a local app was weird. I guess this clock application doesn’t have that. I figured I’d just use Home Assistant and some mp3s instead. That’s fine.

Autocomplete was completely nerfed.

I get that cloud based autocomplete is a privacy concern, but locally it felt like my input boxes and keyboard went back ten years as to helping me type. I could be wrong but it didn’t even seem to be doing simple spelling corrections. None of the unique words or prhases I shared with it got remembered. Seemed like an aggressive choice, even if just the default out of the box. I didn’t get around to investigating as bigger issues were coming.

I couldn’t use my smart watch.

Maybe it’s because my Galaxy4 watch is too old, or it was a problem with Samsung’s own apps, but I had many issues trying to get this reconnected to the point where I just gave up. The first was about what browser Samsung would play nice with — it wasn’t the Cromite browser that comes built in that’s for sure. I tried Chromium, Firefox, even Chrome. It wasn’t ’til I installed Edge of all things that I was able to get half way through the installation. Then a white screen that I was never able to pass no matter how hard I tried. I actually had a Pixel Watch as well laying around. It had different issues but it also proved incompatible. I was let down, but was not defeated as I heard there were other compatible watches and was going to possibly look into a Garmin. And this limitation may be a valid privacy tradeoff. But I felt I should have still had the choice. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?

Android Auto. Yeah. No.

After my watch escapades I didn’t even try to get this running. I mean, I paired to the car, or thought I paired to the car, but I chose the cb radio over basic navigation and music. Because privacy. Yes, I’m getting saltier as time passes. These are conveniences. They should work. If I want them to work. I thought maybe I could figure this out later.

Home Assistant was down?

No, it wasn’t down. It was only down the first, second, third and fourth time I refreshed or opened the app. It’s was definitely up on my network and I’ve never had this problem on any other device or this device before or since. Things were just starting to get weird.

eBay couldn’t login??

I can’t for the life of me even guess what was causing this one. Every other store app, and non-store app I had logged in fine. The website worked on the same device. I tried again a few days later and still the app was still borked. I’ve been slowly using less and less apps on my phone anyway so thought it was time to let this one go too, but I just wasn’t quite ready. More annoyed than ready actually.

And the death blow — sharing photos failed.

I’d take a photo from within an app, any app, e.g. Signal with the intent to securely share, and it would not have any buttons to proceed with the activity. I’d have to leave the app, take the photo, go back to the app, and share the photo. These are modern conveniences we all expect. Why does that not work out of the box. That’s just ridiculous. Could be a bug. Probably a bug. Shouldn’t be a bug…

After about a week of trying to come to terms with the limitations I was facing I decided to go back to stock Android. The reinstallation process was smooth. I was able to download my Google One backup from the cloud, which was nice. eBay worked again. Photos shared. My watch worked. I’m mostly setup. I’ve reevaluated what apps I use. I feel like I’ve gained more privacy through that experience.

On a Venn diagram I’m in the difficult overlapping region of super-techy and privacy conscious. I get what CalyxOS and friends are trying to do. I’d try it or another flavor of Android again in the future for sure. But I’m not sure what they are trying to do makes any sense for the people like me. To convince us to commit we need to see that third circle in combination — what they know from my silly watch and head unit and how that negatively impacts us.

If you’re sure you’re after the level of privacy that it feels like a system like CalyxOS is claiming to offer, I think you’re better off with a handful off offgrid devices (traditional watch, gps, etc) and a burner, I mean, dumb phone. If someone’s looking for you, and you’re connected, they’re going to find you. And they’d probably still find you just as easy running CalyxOS.

But a phone is a choice. CalyxOS is a choice. It’s important we have those choices. And I believe CalyxOS is fighting to preserve those choices for us. I believe we all can agree that is good for those of us that know privacy is a right, and especially those that don’t.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.