Why we need a mobile OS which isn't based on Surveillance Capitalism

The latest tech scandal shows how much Surveillance Capitalism violates people’s privacy. A Panamanian company named Measurement Systems was paying developers of Android apps to include its SDK which was harvesting data from users, including the user’s phone number, email address, IMEI information, GPS data, router SSID and information in the clipboard. Measurement Systems was registered in Panama by Vostram Holdings, which is a private national defense contractor based in Virginia.

Reading the details of this scandal, I was struck by the fact that Measurement Systems was using the same logic of monetizing users’ personal data under Surveillance Capitalism as Google, but the only difference is that Measurement Systems wasn’t informing its users that it was collecting their data and wasn’t abiding by governmental regulations such as GDPR. Google spent billions of dollars developing Android and its apps such as Chromium and its web services such as Google Maps and YouTube and it set up an app store which encouraged app developers to create apps based on Surveillance Capitalism.

While I find the actions of Measurement Systems to be egregious, I can’t help thinking that the Surveillance Capitalism being practiced by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Tik Tok, Rovio Entertainment, etc. is worse because it is so pervasive. The vast majority of people using these services have no idea how much data is being collected about them or how it is being used, so I wonder how much people are truly consenting to giving their data to these companies. For most people, they don’t see much of an option, so they accept the loss of privacy as a necessary evil for the conveniences of a modern smartphone.

Apps using Measurement Systems’ SDK were downloaded over 60 million times from the Google Play Store. Security researchers reported the problem to Google in October 2021, but it wasn’t until March 25, 2022 when Google took action to remove the offending apps from the Play Store.

It is worth pointing out how long it took Google to act. In terms of kernel hardening, app sandboxing and verified boot, Android is better designed for security than a standard Linux system like Debian, but I believe that the average Linux user is far safer than the average Android user, because the probability of installing malware and spyware is so much lower in a Linux system.

Just the requirement that the code be free/open source keeps out most of the bad actors. I was struck by the difference between getting my own app included in the Google Play Store vs F-Droid. It took 1 day with the Play Store vs 2.5 weeks in F-Droid. The F-Droid volunteers took their time, but they actually looked through the code and pointed out that we were calling a non-free library to do downloading and made us include extra information (license file, readme, etc.) about our code. It was frankly a hassle, but it also gave me a lot more confidence that volunteers who care about free/open source software are far better stewards of our privacy than a multi-billion dollar corporation like Google with an ethically-dubious business model.

I decided to back the Librem 5, because I don’t think that AOSP-derivatives are a good vehicle for fighting planned obsolescence and Surveillance Capitalism, which in my opinion are the two great evils of the modern tech industry. Currently Google is happy to allow modders to play with AOSP, but I have little hope that AOSP will ever reach the mainstream, because every phone maker needs their Android license to access Google Web Services, and aftermarket AOSP resellers like /e/ Solutions, Rob Braxman, jolla-devices.com, etc. will always be fringe players. Google holds enormous leverage over the big phone vendors to prevent them from releasing AOSP phones. If AOSP ever starts seriously encroaching on Android’s market share, Google can simply stop releasing new versions of AOSP, so we have little hope of AOSP phones ever becoming more than a fringe movement for geeks and privacy/security fanatics.

I have no idea if mobile Linux will ever reach the mainstream, so it is a viable option for normal users, but I think that it is the best option that we have for fighting Surveillance Capitalism. Nonetheless, there is nothing about mobile Linux that prevents the creation of apps based on Surveillance Capitalism. KaiOS, which is based on Firefox OS, is turning into a vehicle for Surveillance Capitalism, just like Android. Nearly major Linux distro includes Firefox, which depends on Google’s search engine for its revenue. However, Surveillance Capitalism hasn’t been part of the ethos of the principal Linux distros and is strongly discouraged by the community, so developers of apps based on Surveillance Capitalism have generally steered clear of the platform.

A lot of people think that mobile Linux needs a repository that allows Surveillance Capitalism, like the Google Play Store or Apple Store, in order to attract developers to the platform. However, I see a lot of code from desktop Linux being adapted for mobile Linux without the economic incentives of Surveillance Capitalism. In the FOSS world, which is based on encouraging developers to join existing projects and reusing existing libraries, fewer developers are needed and there is no need to have millions of apps like in Android and iOS.

It is my belief that mainstream users will never adopt mobile Linux if it operates like Android and the Play Store. However, I think that mobile Linux has a shot at actually reaching the mainstream, if it keeps out the kind of predatory developers who rely on Surveillance Capitalism, because it will attract more and more users who see a compelling reason to use the OS, even though it offers far fewer apps than Android and iOS. Many companies have tried to compete with Google on its own terms and lost. People couldn’t see a good reason to use less-capable mobile OSes like Symbian, Windows Mobile, Blackberry OS, WebOS and Firefox OS, but a mobile Linux which provides privacy and lifetime software updates gives people compelling reasons to use it, despite its deficiencies compared to Android and iOS, so it has a much better chance of succeeding where others failed in the past.


Here I have a slightly different view. As I see it, the great evil lies in the Apple+Google duopoly itself. Planned obsolescence and Surveillance Capitalism are just two things they (Apple+Google) currently do, things they can do because of their dominance. With the power they have, they are in a position to do much worse things. No company should have that much power.

I like to think that I live in a democracy, but then power should lie with people, through elections. Today, huge power instead lies with Google and Apple. In a society where everyone is expected to have a Google/Apple device in order to interact with the society around you, Google and Apple have huge power, they effectively decide who is allowed to be part of society. It’s a real threat to democracy.


Whew! The first word of the company scared me for a second. I used to work for a company called Measurement Specialties. (It made pressure sensors, it got bought by a bigger fish.)

mostly agree, but is it really surveillance capitalism or is it surveillance fascism? Govt+corporations working hand in hand is much more akin to fascism.


Call it whatever you want. It about control of your personal information

Wow, that is so dangerous for hopefully obvious reasons.

In fact, I am scratching my head as to why apps even have access to all the other stuff.

When installing the app, does the user get asked to consent to the app’s having access to e.g. phone number and most users just touch “Yes” or do Android apps get that kind of info without asking?

No matter how malicious or intrusive an app might be, this is a question about Android itself.

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It isn’t hard to gain access to the clipboard with the code in an Android app. See: https://developer.android.com/guide/topics/text/copy-paste

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Capitalism is a term created by Karl Marx. It IS NOT a synonym for Free Enterprise. It IS the same as Fascism – an abominable public-private partnership… where the state holds all the guns.

The Surveillance State sucks, whatever you call it.

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Marx didn’t create the term. Capitalism is the same as fascism?
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How is this the same as capitalism?
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Please stop with the definitions of political terms. It’s been proven again and again that no agreement about those definitions is possible on this forum. I’ll cut any further posts which continue on this topic in this thread.

EDIT: at the same time I’m glad that the first response was to support the definitions with links. I just don’t believe this will make a difference :frowning:

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I would not say they are the same, but extreme, deregulated capitalism creates aspects of fascism like “forcible suppression of opposition”. In the end, it is about freedom. Concentrated power, whatever system it is built on, will lead to suppression. Privacy plays an important role as an indicator for freedom in my opinion. If information about people is collected covertly, and then used to manipulate them, this is not a benevolent intent. It does not matter if you are manipulated to buy things you did not want before the manipulation or to elect someone or to follow some ideas. Freedom and manipulation do not go together very well.

I’m using the term “Surveillance Capitalism” as defined by Shoshana Zuboff, who is a professor at Harvard Business School. See her article “Surveillance Capitalism and the Challenge of Collective Action” or her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

In my opinion, big tech companies like Google operate under the rules of crony capitalism in the US, but the situation in China is closer to what I would call “Surveillance Fascism”, as is demonstrated by the surveiling of Uighurs and their placement in “education camps” for those who don’t follow the rules. Witness how Jack Ma was recently “silenced” and hasn’t made any public appearances for months for how a Fascist government operates. Of course, the US government’s treatment of Snowden, Manning and Assange are hardly much better, but US government purports to operates under a system of laws and is subject to periodic elections and permits public opposition, so there is some distinction.

Adding a third competitor, like KaiOS, doesn’t make much of a difference, since it is rapidly acquiring many of the same apps based on Surveillance Capitalism as the Google Play Store and Apple Store. If Microsoft had succeeded with Windows Mobile, it also would have become a platform for Surveillance Capitalism, as Windows 10/11 are becoming, so the number of competitors in the market isn’t the crucial factor, but rather the kind of competitors that arise. I believe that AOSP is too dependent upon Google to ever become a true competitor, whereas mobile Linux isn’t hobbled in the same way.

At any rate, operating systems are what economists call “natural monopolies” so in an unregulated market, they will generally end up becoming a monopoly or an oligopoly, which is what we see with the current Google+Apple duopoly. Governmental regulation like GDPR and the anti-trust oversight can constrain the worse excesses of companies that have natural monopolies, but that relies on having a functioning democracy which can’t be subverted by the lobbying power of the companies that hold the natural monopoly.

Turning mobile Linux into a viable alternative for average people is probably the best way to curb Google’s and Apple’s potential abuse of duopoly power, since they know that people have a real alternative, and they know that they can’t subvert that alternative, as Google has done with KaiOS, by buying a stake in the company. If Google bought a 20% stake in Purism like it did with KaiOS, anyone could take the same code and start legally selling Librem 5 clones (although it would take some work to reverse engineer the original CAD files).

I agree that it is threat to democracy when Google/Apple have that much control over how people can interact with each other and interact with their government.

I don’t like the kind of targeted advertising which comes with Surveillance Capitalism, but what I really fear is when governments get access to all the data that gets stored by Surveillance Capitalism. If democracy is functioning, there will be enough push back from the citizenry to curb the worst excesses, as we witnessed with the Snowden revelations, whereas the outcome is very different with Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, Huawei and ZTE (and maybe Apple?) in China, where big tech has to bow to the demands of the Chinese government if they want to stay in business, and none of them can fight the NSA in court as Twitter and the Internet Archive did.

Democracy, however, can erode over time, and ability of citizens to resist can become less, so I fear that all the personal data being stored by Surveillance Capitalism can become a resource that governments will exploit to watch and control their populations, in order to exert what Foucault termed “biopower”. I also imagine scenarios where Surveillance Capitalism companies may use personal data to influence elections or promote policies of allied governments. The best way to avoid this threat to democracy is to not collect personal data in the first place, so it can’t be exploited by governments and companies for political ends.


This isn’t Round Table. Best to stay on topic: Why we need a mobile OS which isn’t based on Surveillance Capitalism

If someone goes off on a tangent, you can a) just ignore it, or b) fork the topic (preferably into Round Table).

As @amosbatto says, Surveillance Capitalism is a compound term in its own right, coined by Shoshana Zuboff (correct spelling, Amos :slight_smile:), and is not tied to or dependent on definitions of Fascism, Capitalism, what’s happening in China, your views on politics or political theory, …

Everything Google is very soundly based in Surveillance Capitalism and therefore Android can’t be an answer. (Apple has its own problems but iOS is probably not as bad.) Not that Microsoft is relevant in the mobile space but Microsoft is also fairly solidly moving into the surveillance space.

Your data is someone else’s revenue stream. To those who perceive that as a problem - which most assuredly is not everyone - we need an alternative, both philosophical and practical.


Thanks, I changed it. I always was horrible at spelling, and that one wasn’t in the darn spell checker. :slight_smile:

I’m waiting for a FOSS AI spell checker that will catch that sort of mistake, but I refuse to use any of the current AI writing assistants, since they are also based on capturing everyone’s text and who knows how all that text is used, so I guess that I will keep screwing up people’s names and proper nouns.