With few Linux exceptions like Librem 5, there are two players present in the global mobile market, Google's Android and Apple's iOS. With a 70% global market share, Android holds formidable dominance for a simple reason. It has a drastically wider range of budget options and manufacturers. Moreover, the Android ecosystem is amenable to custom ROMs, while Apple phones are entirely dependent on Apple's corporate will.
While it is true that the Apple brand sells because of its carefully nurtured prestige status, as demonstrated by Apple's 60% mobile market share in the U.S., it is still a walled garden. Many people aren't concerned about this aspect of the Apple ecosystem. However, if you are privacy-minded, should that be the case?
What Do Apple’s Actions Tell Us About Its View on Privacy?
Did you know that Apple made a secret deal with China in 2016 worth $275 billion? It was reported only recently, having stipulations that for Apple to remain in the Chinese market, the company would have to help develop China's tech sector, training, investments, and business deals.
Those familiar with China's Great Firewall, know what is the nation's approach to privacy. Simply put, it is non-existent as even VPN services are tightly controlled by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). It is no secret that China engages in a global data collection and information suppression scheme.
According to Strike Source, China has access to 20% of the world's private data, while even 62% of VPN services are stealthily owned by China.
As the saying goes, a man is known by the company he keeps. This is why it is important to understand China's aggressive policies with Apple's policies. After the iOS 14.5 update arrived in H1 2021, Apple’s trajectory became clear. Former Apple engineer and co-founder of Lockdown Privacy, Johnny Lin, described this update as:
“It’s possible it could sort itself out in the long run, but right now, it’s inconsistent, with low compliance rates, confusing since it doesn’t work the same way as other permissions, and easy to get around.”
Moreover, in August, Apple created a controversy when it announced that the company would start automatically scanning users' private photos, under the guise of looking for CSAM (child sexual abuse material). Because this would obviously lead to scanning of any other type of content, including political memes, security & privacy experts, cryptographers, professors, and researchers have called for Apple to scrap the initiative, with nearly 9,000 people having signed the letter.
Edward Snowden, former NSA security expert and iconic whistleblower, framed the feature as:
“I can’t think of any other company that has so proudly, and so publicly, distributed spyware to its own devices..."
Due to massive backlash from both users and experts, Apple has scrapped the SCAM detection feature from its website, but the plan is still to implement it, suffering only a PR delay. However, these red flags are not the only ones when it comes to Apple's respect for user privacy.
The Citizen Lab research group published an investigative report on August 18, 2021, on Apple's ties with China. The report found that Apple adopted China's censorship and keyword filtering rules and applied it to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Now that the secret deal from 2016 has been revealed, this is a surprise to no one.
The question then is, how long will Apple users condone and tolerate this clear trajectory toward total surveillance?
GrapheneOS as a Viable Alternative to iOS Spying
Due to Apple's walled garden approach, there is no such thing as custom ROMs, excluding jailbreaking. In contrast, Android relies on an open-source ecosystem of a multitude of operating systems. One of them is GrapheneOS, built from scratch to maximally fortify the phone's security measures, which then automatically translate to privacy.
GrapheneOS core developer, Daniel Micay, has been at the forefront of Android fortification since 2014. Google's Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is the baseline for stock firmware across all Android phones. AOSP itself underwent massive security and privacy improvements, upon which GrapheneOS further builds up its features:
- Exclusion of all Google products and services, including the telemetry data, preventing you to enable privacy-intrusive measures to use your phone. Instead, GrapheneOS relies on the F-Droid ecosystem of apps. Such an alternative is non-existent with Apple phones.
- Disabled optional network usage by default, whether it is Bluetooth or NFC.
- Hardened kernel, as the first program that boots up and handles the startup of other software.
- Hardened filesystem, memory allocation, and storage encryption. In practice, this entails constant and aggressive code consistency checks to prevent intrusion, frequent memory purge of sensitive data, and segmentation of data so that a malicious code in one system can't spread outward.
- System hardening also applies to the phone's other parts — camera, microphone, GPS, accelerometer, etc. — all of them are toggle-permissioned.
Moreover, GrapheneOS takes into account both hardware and software hardening against privacy breaches. This is why Micay picked the Pixel smartphone series as the only one that supports GrapheneOS. He described it as a significant improvement on its predecessor lineup, Nexus.
“The Nexus 5X and 6P were the start of addressing lackluster firmware and hardware security, but they didn't move the needle much. Pixels have drastically improved it and each generation has added compelling hardware security features and improved the existing ones."
Lastly, it bears emphasizing that the App Store, the only place to get iOS apps, cripples third-party software. Not only is the cost of entry for developers higher, but the App Store prevents alternative browser engines. Case in point, it wouldn't be possible to install Firefox or Brave with their add-on support for privacy-fortifying extensions like uBlock Origin, which is a must-have for both privacy and a smooth web browsing experience.
GrapheneOS as a Viable Alternative to iOS Spying
Imagine having a crypto wallet on your phone with enough money to buy a luxury car. Now imagine that your phone has a back door left ajar by either Google or Apple, or is being forced by the government. They may not look into your wallet, yet, but criminals have no compunction in taking advantage of what is available. The Pegasus spyware scandal showed this in no uncertain terms.
If one reads current trends with an objective mind, it doesn't take long to figure out we are heading into a mass spying and surveillance era. Fortunately, Edward Snowden already pegged GrapheneOS as one of the best privacy ROMs available.
To earn this reputation, GrapheneOS built its firmware on three principles: minimizing user data, partitioning data, and disabling permission for third-party data and other dynamic code. While this may cause some inconvenience at first, one only has to ask the following question. Would you rather have a stock iOS ROM or one that is hardened in the case of Klaus Schwab's cyberattack?