Introduction

As the next step in my journey towards reducing my digital footprint and improving my privacy, I wanted to step away from the tracking-centric and monopolized mobile operating systems (OSs) that are most commonly used by people all around the world.

As Android is an open-source operating system at the core with many vendor-specific changes and additions on top, it provides a great base for a privacy-centric OS once stripped of any Google tracking services and applications.

The two main contenders today are CopperheadOS and CalyxOS. 1

Note: GrapheneOS is also a common recommendation, but due to many factors I can not recommend it.

Why CopperheadOS?

After investigating each of the above options and seeing they shared a lot of core features and design choices, I decided to go with CopperheadOS at the recommendation of many people I trust in the space.

All three options above have the same Android Open Source Project base and focus heavily on stripping Google services out and hardening the OS from the ground up, but Copperhead came highly recommended and @maxtannahill (and his company Mamushi) were extremely helpful throughout every step of the process.

My experience dealing with Mamushi and CopperheadOS so far has been flawless, with excellent customer support, active Telegram groups, and a simple setup with great documentation to get me started. My phone was shipped quickly once I paid in Monero, well packaged, and had easy to install OTA updates ready once I got it booted up.

What is it like to use?

Using CopperheadOS is very similar to using the near-stock Android found on Google Pixel devices normally, albeit with the exception of Google Play services and the Play Store.

I chose to go with the Google Pixel 4a and so far it’s extremely smooth to use, has all the core settings I would normally expect, and has provided me with excellent battery life right out of the box.

How do I get apps?

The biggest difference when switching to a privacy-preserving mobile OS like CopperheadOS is the distinct lack of any Google service support – including the Play Store, where all apps are normally distributed through! So how do you get all the apps you need installed?

Enter F-Droid.

F-Droid is an awesome repository of open-source Android apps and comes pre-installed in CopperheadOS. There are a core set of repositories enabled within F-Droid, but you can add your own repositories from companies and services you love to get their app directly through F-Droid.

F-Droid not only allows you to download, install, and update apps, it also performs verification on them each time to make sure some of the most serious Android attack vectors are harder to use against you.

Two other options exist as well for installing applications, though they are not recommended if at all avoidable:

  • Aurora Store is an open-source Google Play Store alternate client, allowing you to (either anonymously via throwaway accounts or via your own Google account) install apps from the Play Store without Google Services installed.
    • Reasons to use it: the ability to access the entire Google Play Store library of applications is powerful, and many applications are simply not available via F-Droid or direct APK installation
    • Reasons to avoid it: many of the apps require Google Play Services to run correctly and are not open-source
  • Installing APKs manually allows you to install any APKs that are published for direct download by their creator or on a site like APKMirror
    • Reasons to use it: many applications like Signal are not available on F-Droid yet but still provide a manual APK download
    • Reasons to avoid it: installing APKs downloaded from the internet without validation is risky and exposes you to malware and other dangerous applications. Be sure to always validate the APK comes from the official source whenever possible.

My recommended apps

A big part of switching over to CopperheadOS was to get off of Google services, so many of the apps I had been using before had to be replaced. Hopefully the list below will save you some time when you decide to take this privacy leap as well!

Aegis for OTP

Why I like it

Aegis is an open-source two-factor authentication app, similar to Google Authenticator and Authy in usage. It was very simple to setup, has native encrypted backup support, and came highly recommended to me.

Where to get it

https://f-droid.org/en/packages/com.beemdevelopment.aegis/

AntennaPod for podcasts

Why I like it

AntennaPod is a great open-source podcast app that shares a lot of it’s UX with Pocket Casts, but is available through F-Droid. I’ve just started using it, but so far it’s an excellent FOSS replacement for Pocket Casts!

Where to get it

https://f-droid.org/en/packages/de.danoeh.antennapod/

Bitwarden for password manager

Why I like it

An open-source, encrypted by-default, and highly portable password manager is a powerful tool. I use Bitwarden across all of my devices and thoroughly enjoy the feature-set.

Where to get it

For Bitwarden (and some other apps on this list) you will have to install the repo provided by the creator:

https://mobileapp.bitwarden.com/fdroid/

Fennec for browsing

Why I like it

FireFox has quickly become my browser-of-choice for day-to-day browsing, even though I’m slowly working my way to using Tor Browser more and more. Fennec is a distribution with some native FireFox services and telemetry removed, and is the main version available via F-Droid.

Where to get it

https://f-droid.org/en/packages/org.mozilla.fennec_fdroid/

Infinity for Reddit

Why I like it

Infinity is a gorgeous Reddit app with great features, and has been a much better overall experience than I ever had on iOS. Highly recommended.

Where to get it

https://f-droid.org/en/packages/ml.docilealligator.infinityforreddit/

Monerujo for payments

Why I like it

Monerujo was the first mobile Monero wallet I ever used, and has constantly pushed the boundaries of UX and usability on mobile for Monero. It’s a great wallet with simple features to use, an awesome automatic node selection tool, and “Street Mode” for hiding balances from prying eyes.

Where to get it

For the latest versions directly via F-Droid, install the repo for Monerujo:

https://f-droid.monerujo.io/fdroid/repo/

NewPipe for YouTube

Why I like it

I consume a lot of content on YouTube, so going without that service was something I was dreading with this switch. Thankfully NewPipe is an incredible tool that allows you to browse, watch, and download YouTube videos without ads, and requires no Google log-in. It even provides native ways to create playlists, import subscriptions directly from YouTube, and keep up to date with your latest channels.

Where to get it

For the latest versions and quicker updates, install the NewPipe F-Droid repository here:

https://newpipe.net/FAQ/tutorials/install-add-fdroid-repo/

It is also available on a slower update schedule from the standard F-Droid repositories here:

https://f-droid.org/en/packages/org.schabi.newpipe/

OSMAnd for maps and navigation

Why I like it

It certainly doesn’t have the same visual appeal and ease of use as Google Maps, but so far it’s been a fine and usable replacement, and of course is open-source and has much better data handling than Google Maps while not relying on Google Services.

Where to get it

https://f-droid.org/en/packages/net.osmand.plus/

Samourai Wallet for Bitcoin payments

Why I like it

Samourai Wallet is a privacy-preserving Bitcoin wallet that aims to make it easier for users to mix and spend Bitcoin while not revealing their transaction history or wallet balances to the observer.

Where to get it

Install the Samourai repo in F-Droid:

https://samouraiwallet.com/download/fdroid

Signal for all messaging

Why I like it

Signal is an easy-to-use end-to-end encrypted messaging app, which allows people to easily communicate without revealing data to any intermediaries. While not perfect, it’s a great first step to get people on the journey towards better online privacy, and I use it daily.

Where to get it

Signal provides the APK download directly on their site:

https://signal.org/android/apk/

Standard Notes for encrypted notes

Why I like it

Standard Notes is a great encrypted notes app available across platforms that also accepts Monero for subscriptions. Extensions add a lot of power features including encrypted attachment uploads to your own WebDav server, like Nextcloud.

Where to get it

Official APKs are available from Github for the latest versions:

https://github.com/standardnotes/mobile/releases/

If you’re OK being a bit behind the most recent release, there is a community-run F-Droid version available as well:

https://f-droid.org/en/packages/com.standardnotes/

Tor Browser and Orbot

Why I like it

Tor is an anonymity network protocol that helps users avoid ISP and government network surveillance. It is the backbone of many privacy tools, and is a great initiative to help user’s remain anonymous while online.

The Tor browser is the browser I would recommend people use for everyday browsing as it includes many default privacy protections by-default, while also sending all traffic natively over the Tor network.

Orbot allows you to tunnel specific apps through Tor, or even tunnel all of your phones traffic over the Tor network if desired.

Where to get it

Tor and Orbot are both available via F-Droid, but in order to access them you will need to enable Guardian Project repo in F-Droid’s repository settings.

Updater for Spotify

Why I like it

I normally use YouTube Music, but as part of this switch I wanted to find a new music subscription service that had the ability to function without Google Services. Spotify was highly recommended, and I’ve been liking it so far.

This particular app allows you to easily download, install, and update Spotify via direct APK downloads, as Spotify does not provide APKs on their site nor are they listed on F-Droid.

Where to get it

https://f-droid.org/en/packages/ru.ra66it.updaterforspotify/

VLC for video

Why I like it

VLC is a well-respected and trusted video player, and one I have used for many, many years. Simple controls, solid UI, and distribution via F-Droid make it an easy choice.

Where to get it

https://f-droid.org/en/packages/org.videolan.vlc/

Conclusion

While the jump to a de-Googled phone may not be the easiest, it’s a great further step towards preserving my privacy, reducing my digital footprint, and ensuring I am not reliant on the good-graces of a big tech company like Google for my daily apps.

The experience is surprisingly user-friendly once you get used to how to get apps and migrate over to strong open-source alternatives where possible, and I would highly recommend this for those somewhat tech-savvy users who want to preserve their privacy while on the go.

Thanks to Mamushi for the phone and Max Tannahill for the in-depth answers to all of my questions, excellent support, and strong recommendations!

If you have any questions from this post or would like more information on a specific aspect of my switch to CopperheadOS, please reach out via Twitter, Matrix, or email.


  1. CalyxOS bundles MicroG, a Google Services middle-man that makes transitioning to it much easier, and is still open-source. ↩︎