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FSF fandroids fight to 'free' Android from Google's forepaws

Punters urged to gain control of apps, privates

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

The Free Software Foundation in Europe is taking a swipe at Android with a campaign to help punters wrestle their phones and data from Google's paws.

The foundation has flagged up seven pieces of software or services it reckons you'll want to use with your Android handset and possibly help develop. These will stop you being “spied on” and give you more freedom, the FSFE says.

While the average punter thinks of "free" as "no cost", the FSFE has a broader concept. It considers "free" software to be programs for which you can get hold of the source code and thus rebuild to your heart's content, safe in the knowledge that you're aware of what your gear is doing. Although Android is billed as open source, not all its source code is available leaving its internal operation a mystery, which gets the FSFE's back up.

According to the group, software and the drivers for most Android devices aren’t freely available, and phones and apps “frequently work against the interests of the users, spy on them and sometimes cannot even be removed”.

“This campaign can help you to regain control of your Android device and your data. It collects information about running an Android system as free as possible and tries to coordinate the efforts in this area,” the FSFE adds.

The foundation flagged up the fact most apps want access to your personal data, such as your address book, or use Google Analytics. It also pointed to Carrier IQ, the software installed on 141 million smartphones - not just Androids – that sparked a scandal when a researcher found the snoopware recording key presses, geographic locations and received messages, apparently for diagnostic purposes.

“These are just examples that have been discovered so far. The lack of freedom impedes independent inspection and secret spy features only become known by accident,” the FSFE said.

Apparently a phone running only free software does not require you to provide data to others.

The FSFE is therefore encouraging developer contributions to Replicant, the alternative Android distro that is flagging and “in urgent need of help”. Richard Stallman, the bearded founder and president of FSFE sister group the Free Software Foundation, is a fan of Replicant, which he lobbed at Android in his earlier critique.

The FSFE also wants help in make F-Droid, the repository for free and open-source applications, easier to install from CyanogenMod, the firmware distro based on the Android Open Source Project.

Naturally, FSFE is also championing use of Replicant, F-Droid and CyanogenMod, too.

On data, the FSFE has provided links to four services to synchronise your address book and calendar with non-Google clouds and services. These are ACal, kolab-android, the Funambol Sync client, and SSH daemon dropbear for secure connections.

Like those in the open source and Linux communities, the FSF has difficulty accepting Google’s Android.

The problem is Android’s success: after years of banging on about the desktop, Linux is booming somewhere completely unexpected – the smartphone, thanks to Android. Stallman last September gave Android grudging praise saying while Google's phone platform isn’t “free” it’s at least better for developers than the completely closed Windows Phone from Microsoft and Apple’s iOS.

Before that, Stallman’s organisation had walloped Android handset makers for not releasing changes to the source code to the community. The rub for Stallman is that while parts of Android are licensed under the FSF’s General Public Licence, which (generally speaking) requires developers to make the relevant source code available for redistribution, the project also uses the Apache licence, which does not impose such a requirement. This is why Stallman doesn’t consider Android fully "free" software. ®

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