General awareness about risks in automatic collection of individuals’ private data is growing quickly. Meanwhile, companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft invent new ways to collect their customers’ data behind the scenes. For an ordinary person, probably the biggest data collector is an Android or Apple mobile device that is effectively tracking a user’s entire life.
It is a business opportunity for start-ups like /e/ Foundation that advocate for people’s right to privacy.
The first version of the /e/-powered smartphone was made available in early August 2019. You can purchase an unlocked smartphone where a new, privacy-respecting operating system /e/OS is powering the device.
If you are really confident with technology, you can download the software and install (reflash) it on your phone yourself. The third option that is coming later is to send your favorite phone to the Foundation where it is re-flashed with /e/OS.
The first phones available are Samsung Galaxy models that come with the /e/OS operating system pre-installed. The phones are refurbished products in good condition. It also means that the prices are lower than for a new product.
Phones running on /e/OS get private cloud services that allow syncing data between the phone and the cloud storage.
At the moment, the factory-installed /e/ phones are available in Europe only, but the Foundation is looking for partners who could distribute products in other regions.
Selling re-flashed refurbished phones is a stroke of genius. When I wrote about /e/ about a year ago, I didn’t see a way for the new software to reach mass markets unless the Foundation can sell phones that have the new operating system pre-installed. They solved the problem beautifully.
Fast Company has written how /e/ and another privacy-aware mobile device vendor Purism are aiming at smashing Google and Apple in mobile device markets. I don’t believe that’s the first objective for people contributing to the open source software. The top priority is to get an alternative to the market: a choice for people who understand the risks of rampant private data collection. For the majority of Android and Apple users, following the early adopters of /e/ and similar initiatives is unlikely. The key point is that/e/, or another privacy-aware technology, gains enough followers so that the development effort is sustainable.
The remarkable thing is that the /e/ Foundation team did it in about two years. The lead developer Gael Duval explains the background in his blog post. The starting point was open source Android software that was stripped from Google applications and replaced with open source apps.
Naturally, the first version is not completely error-free and not completely free of Google, either. But the openness how the Foundation develops the software and lets contributors and supporters to be involved is encouraging. It is a huge project to get it right, but there are plenty of privacy advocates providing assistance to make it happen.