Many people who understand the importance of digital security and privacy have been longing for mobile devices that don’t leak their data to large corporations and advertisers. As it happens, during the second half of 2019, two very different privacy-focused mobile phone products have become available: Purism Librem 5 phone that is powered by Debian-originated Linux and phones from /e/ Foundation that are powered by a modified Android software.
Before the Librem smartphone was created Purism manufactured and marketed laptops for people who want strict security and privacy for their computers. The laptops are powered by Linux operating system PureOS that is derived from Debian.
So we can assume that the developers of the Librem 5 phone knew what they were doing when they decided to put the same PureOS operating system into a mobile phone and design a product around it. Purism wanted to be sure that no hardware module or software component does anything suspicious, and required all components to be open software. It is not a minor requirement when mobile hardware and software is in question. It is a more complex and demanding task to create a commercial phone than a laptop.
The phone runs Gnome and KDE desktop that provide the graphical user interface for the device. You can attach a keyboard and mouse to the phone, and since it is full-blown Linux, apt-get and systemctl all you want.
Purism made it. The Librem 5 phone may not be as sleek as the top-of-the line Samsung or Huawei phones, but it is available. And you can be sure it doesn’t spy on you. The launch price is USD 700. The specifications are available at the Purism online shop page.
Here is a video where a Purism manager introduces the Librem 5 phone:
Comparison of Purism Librem 5 and /e/ Foundation phones
Recently, another team of Linux experts, the /e/ Foundation, introduced their first product, the /e/OS operating system for mobile devices. The objective of the /e/ is exactly the same as Purism: protect phone users privacy and increase their digital security. The strategies, however, couldn’t be more different between the two open software teams.
/e/ Foundation took the core open source Android software as its starting point. It replaced Google components and apps with open source software that doesn’t continuously send sensitive data to commercial databases.
The beta version of the e/OS operating system is available for download and it is also pre-installed on phones that can be purchased from the foundation’s web shop.
The key reasons why the foundation decided to use Android were two-fold. Android is, after all, Linux at its core – although modified for mobile devices. The second reason is crucial for the mass market: applications developed for Android run on the phones powered by e/OS software.
If and when both Purism and e/ succeed in their objective to protect privacy and increase security for mobile users, the key factor that differentiates the privacy advocates is the availability of third party apps for their products. Also, the variety of phones in different price ranges is an important factor in the mass market.