Even if I wanted a smartphone, how would I use it?

Blurry people

Smartphones aren’t evil, but for me, the cons far outweigh the pros. I don’t need a map to get around, I don’t need email everywhere I am, and apps don’t seem like they would qualitatively add to my life. For most situations, there is a non-smartphone solution. (My version of Yelp is to ask someone.)

But there are sometimes when I wonder if I’m just being needlessly recalcitrant, or if there’s a way that I could make what is the ubiquitous technology today and have it work for me.

But it turns out that I’m stuck before I even get started.

Now you don’t see me

One of the most important aspects of using technology today is anonymity. I don’t consent to anyone knowing my use of software or websites unless I specifically grant it. What I do in my own time is my own business.

I use Incognito Mode for all of my browsing, and restart my browser frequently, so my history is not known. More specifically, it means that websites can’t see what other websites I’ve visited. (If you’ve ever gotten an ad that seems chillingly familiar to you, it’s because your browser history is being harvested to sell you things.)

When I download software, I do so anonymously. If the site requires a log in, I usually put in fake info. But most sites don’t require such intrusions.

(Technical caveat: I know that my MAC address is a fixed string, and someone who really wanted to could tie me to it via some kind of report on the various server logs out there. But this level of digital espionage is beyond all but the most committed assailants. And I’m no Edward Snowden.)

No one expects me to install a webcam in my home, so I don’t see how tracking my activity online is any different.

But it turns out that this is not an accepted analogy.

Setting up a new Android phone

I researched what happens when you turn on an Android device for the first time.

(I picked Android over Apple iPhone and Microsoft Windows Phone for lots of reasons, but mainly because Google has a slightly better track record of openness than Apple’s Walled Garden, and Windows Phone is basically a footnote in the market, and so it’s harder to find information about it. If the analysis below applies differently to these other products, please let me know.)

The setup instructions seem pretty straightforward. One thing I noticed is that it really really wants you to log in with your Google Account.

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No thanks. Why would I want my Google Account tied to my actions online? I don’t need an email account to browse the internet, right?


Here’s the thing I learned. In order to download anything on a smartphone, you need to download it through the phone’s app store. And there is absolutely no way to download from an app store without logging in.

Chrome on Google Play
You can’t even download Chrome from Google.

This feels unacceptable. Everything you download, every app you use is linked to you.

I’ve tried to get around this app store restriction, but mostly came up short. There are ways to manually install packages without going through an app store, but this is assuming that you can get your digital hands on one of these packages.

I even tried Bluestacks, an Android emulator. I wanted to learn: could I get to a website without logging in anywhere?

I could not. Doing anything would bring up a window to sign in to my Google Account. I even installed Firefox manually (I found a package!) but even still, I could not run it without getting hit with the ceaseless ask to log in.

Bluestacks login
I couldn’t get past this screen.

And all of this, just so I can get some damn driving directions or a Yelp review?

No thanks. I’ll stick to my dumbphone. It might track my location, but at least that’s a moving target. You won’t get a webcam.

But enough about me. Am I being too paranoid? Do you know how to stay anonymous on your smartphone?

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