This is stupid! Please help me enjoy my new toys (Moto G, iPad, Macbook)
May 14, 2014 3:19 PM   Subscribe

I've recently acquired some new toys that I'm not getting any use out of because of my unusually strong hatred of spyware, adware, and "social networking". Specifically, I've had a new Moto G phone for about two weeks, an iPad mini for a few months and a Macbook Pro for about two years. I'm not getting any enjoyment or use out of these tools because I need help configuring them in such a way that they don't bother me with social networking noise and spyware-related crap. Please help.

Back in the day, I used to build my own systems for fun and profit (mostly Windows, sometimes Linux). I configured these boxes exactly how I wanted them and this brought me a lot of pleasure. I was also a huge tech geek and kept up on all the latest tech toys and software. In 2006, I'd finally had it with Windows and Linux couldn't run all the apps that I needed, so I bought a Mac Pro and never looked back. It's been a dream to use (minus a few small O/S-related hiccups) and it's still, to this day, the best computer I've ever owned. It's fast, quiet, and efficient and it stays the hell out of my way unless I allow it to bug me.

These days, I don’t have the time or the inclination really to keep up on all the latest tech gadgetry and software. Privacy rights are very important to me, so I’ve configured my Mac Pro to within an inch of its life to avoid spyware and I don’t use or care for social networking. I don’t have anything to hide, I just resent the never-ending creep of surveillance that’s come to be the norm in the United States these days, so I try not to participate as much as humanly possible.

The problem: I bought a few new items over time as my older stuff started needing replacement, yet because they came with so much social networking cruft, spyware crap, and the need for me to use Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store to install software, music, or movies I want or already own, I’ve been basically paralyzed with resentment and rarely use them. I've played about 1000 games of 2048 on my iPad and watched a few movies on my laptop, but that’s it. My new Moto G stares balefully at me from the corner, daring me to use it, but all I’ve done is charge it.

This is stupid. I want to use my toys! Can you offer any advice as to how to get these devices to do what I want them to do and nothing more? For example, my Mac Pro runs Snow Leopard. After lots of tweaking (adding apps I want like Little Snitch, Firefox, 1Password, VLC, Quicksilver, Adium, etc and disabling things I didn’t want like the App Store, Flash, the Dashboard, iChat, iDisk, etc. I love Snow Leopard. (That's the main reason I don't really like my Macbook Pro -- because it came with Lion, a pale imitation of Snow Leopard imo -- and I haven't even bothered to upgrade it.)

Specifically, I want to avoid the App and Play stores as much as possible. I absolutely loathe Chrome and can barely tolerate Safari, so I want to use whatever Firefox-like browser is best from a privacy standpoint. The same goes for chat apps, cloud storage, pdf reader, and music player since those are basically what I’d be using the most. I have one friend who has an iPhone that I’d want to text and possibly tweet (ugh) or facebook to (using a fake account obvs); other than that, I’m not interested in joining the social networking revolution.

What apps should I use? How do I use my toys with as little google and Apple snooping as humanly possible? Thanks in advance for any advice! I’ve tried researching these things myself, but all I get are product reviews, gaming sites, and other non-helpful info.
posted by LuckySeven~ to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
You don't say what you want to use your toys for. What's the goal?
posted by SemiSalt at 3:27 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: "Specifically, I want to avoid the App and Play stores as much as possible. I absolutely loathe Chrome and can barely tolerate Safari, so I want to use whatever Firefox-like browser is best from a privacy standpoint. The same goes for chat apps, cloud storage, pdf reader, and music player since those are basically what I’d be using the most. I have one friend who has an iPhone that I’d want to text and possibly tweet (ugh) or facebook to (using a fake account obvs); other than that, I’m not interested in joining the social networking revolution."

Sorry if that wasn't clear: web browsing, cloud storage, reading of pdfs, listening to music, and texting, Twitter and facebook with my iPhone friend. Thanks.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 3:35 PM on May 14, 2014

Yes - when you picture yourself having fun with your computers, what are you doing in that picture?
posted by Sebmojo at 3:35 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is your Moto G rooted? That's where I'd start. It's sort of like giving yourself administrator rights to the phone. It's not without its risks, however.

I run Firefox on mine, it works really well. Then there's a firewall - Android Firewall. And don't forget xprivacy too - prevent apps from getting access to your contacts, your GPS location, etc.

There are also apps like App Quarantine, which will enable you to disable anything on the phone. I use it to disable all of the Google related stuff like the play store and such, rather than uninstalling them with an uninstaller app, because sometimes I need them. Google Maps is extremely convenient, and as long as you clear the data, not just the cache, you're golden.

If you're really paranoid, you can use TextSecure to encrypt your messages OTA. Can't speak to any of the other apps you mention, though.

With regards to actually downloading apps, there are other places to get them from. However, there's very little oversight over these places - you don't know that the people running the app stores aren't building backdoors into the apps you're downloading. But you have to take a risk at some point.
posted by Solomon at 3:36 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I own a Macbook Pro and the only times I have ever opened Apple's App Store have been by accident. I can't think of a reason why you would need to install any software (other than Apple's) from the App Store.
posted by AndrewInDC at 3:37 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My Moto G is not rooted and I'm not afraid to do so if that's what it takes. Thanks, Solomon; that's exactly the kind of info I'm looking for. I'll probably stick to using the official App and Play stores to get my apps, but I don't want them constantly running in the background and tracking what I'm doing, if that's possible. And I would need Google Maps on occasion, so App Quarantine sounds perfect.

Andrew, I just find the Lion interface really pale and annoying; I don't know if it's just me and my poor vision, but Snow Leopard is much easier on my eyes because I've tweaked the icons and folders and fonts and stuff.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 3:42 PM on May 14, 2014

The solution is all in the setup.

Firstly, get rid of your Mac OSX and get a Linux machine up and running (I'm sure there are ways to do this on a Mac?). That OS Edward Snowden has been going on about? Use that.

Next, setup a Google Mail account through your super ninja desktop, making sure to give no real indication as to your identity. Using this email address, setup an Apple ID in similar fashion.

Next you need to setup a VPN service on both your ipad and android devices. There are a billion tutorials out there. Privacy is all about setup. Reroute all your info through VPN.

This article about a woman who tried to hide her pregnancy from big data might give you some ideas, and some food for thought.

I might be wrong, but I am pretty sure you can use the Play and Apple stores to download FREE apps without a credit card. But now you are restricted to FREE apps only, or piracy, which is not advisable. There are a lot of amazing free apps out there that do all the tasks you require. Firefox is available on ipad and android.

What are you worried about with the "snooping" exactly? The stress you cause yourself seething over all this stuff is not worth it. I jailbreak my ipad, root my Nexus android phone to give me more control, and avoid Apple Macs whenever possible (PCs all the way for flexibility and control). I'm not paranoid about privacy though. My toys do everything I want them to without any stress.
posted by 0bvious at 4:00 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can highly recommend the paid for version of App Quarantine. It lets you create a widget "folder" of apps and enable/disable them all simultaneously.

You might also want a hosts file to block advertising. It's a bit fiddly to install one on the Moto G, something about write protection. There's a hack that lets you install it in data/data/hosts, then symlink the location it should be to the location it is. Works just fine after that, especially if you add google analytics to it.

You can just create a new google account every time you want to download a new app. I do it all the time. One thing you might want to look into is hiding your phone's IMEI from google. Spoofing it may or may not be legal in your country, though.
posted by Solomon at 4:22 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a rooted android phone with Xposed installed on it. This is basically a snazzy bit of hackery that allows you to customize the phone's system files by installing 'modules'. It has its own mini module store (not really a store, since everything is free). The stuff you can do is pretty amazing.

I also have an app called AdAway installed, which you cannot get from the playstore. This does what Solomon says above, and blocks all ads and spyware etc. in any app I wish it to. INDISPENSABLE. If you don't have an adblocker on your desktop browser you are missing out big time. Adblock edge or Adblock plus.

I also have AdBlocker installed on my jailbroken ipad. Same thing. Indispensable.
posted by 0bvious at 4:30 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

so I want to use whatever Firefox-like browser is best from a privacy standpoint

Um, Firefox? I'm right there with you on being sick of Google's prying fingers in everything. Firefox crashes a lot on my Macbook but it's worth it.

If you want to take it to an extreme, Parallels makes it trivial to run a Linux VM on Mac OS.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:31 PM on May 14, 2014

Re: credit cards, whenever I've needed a credit card for iTunes/App store and whatnot (I used to own an iPad), I would buy a $25 (etc.) credit/debit-style gift card from my local drugstore. I think it was $5 over the face value of the card, or something, but it would've been the same had I bought the $100 card. iTunes has, in the past, required a credit card to be present for free things. (I recall trying to download a free movie once, and hit that obstacle.) No idea whether it's true any longer. Anyway, once the balance is exhausted, they don't care-- keep refilling with iTunes gift cards, bought for cash at drugstores.

Since they're a banking instrument, if you're not in the US, these credit/debit cards may or may not be legal or available where you are. I don't know why I clicked on your MeFi to check your location-- of course it's not there. :^)

By the way, you don't have to wipe your Mac to run Tails, mentioned above, as long as you can boot from USB; Tails runs just fine from that sort of drive. Also, using the Tor network doesn't exactly hide your identity--that's still your job --but it's very good at hiding your location, and often that's just as good, since it will disconnect your IP address (and your ISP billing records) from you. The Tails website discusses this in clear language.

Re: Android browsers: in addition to FF, take a look at Dolphin Zero, from the makers of the popular (and IMO excellent) Dolphin browser for android.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:32 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry to threadsit, but in light of 0bvious's first set of questions, I feel my original post might have lacked clarity. I'm not engaged in any whistleblowing or ninja activities (lol!), so I don't have a need for Edward Snowden-like setups or equipment. I'm also not stressed out and seething or ultra paranoid about this stuff; I'd simply like to use my computers and phone without apps casually tracking what I'm doing every minute of the day. If google wants to know that I just played 2048 on the can, then they can pay to watch me like everybody else.

Solomon's answers and Sunburnt's advice are precisely what I'm looking for, so if anyone else has specific app recommendations like they do, please chime in! Thanks all.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 4:35 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am not a privacy nut either (I am one of those naive people whose entire online life is open for all to see. Even my students). Nor do I do ninja things. But I do recommend all those tools I mention - perhaps especially in my second comment. It's all about control. Eventually there will be an android tablet to rival the ipad for quality, and I can finally rid myself of the apple burden, but for now, jailbreaking does a pretty decent job of turning a lovely bit of hardware into a useful toolkit. I love my Nexus 5 phone. Yes, I give Google more data, but in return I get the closest thing to a bloatware free phone I have ever had.
posted by 0bvious at 4:40 PM on May 14, 2014

There is an app called "greenify" in the google play store that is meant to preserve battery life. The way it does this is by preventing apps from running in the background - so it also accomplishes your goals for your Moto G. Download that, point it toward all the Google apps and services (or hell, all your apps if you want), and you should be good to go. That way, you will know the only things running are the basic Android system and the app showing on your screen.

But FWIW, I don't think the Play Store or other Google services are actively monitoring which apps you have open or for how long you use them. But if you're paranoid about it, enable all the privacy settings you can, then root and use something like xposed to open up additional privacy settings. For example, there is an xposed module that surfaces the hidden "AppOps" setting, which allows you to approve or deny individual permissions on a per-app basis.

There is also an open-source android "store" (all free apps) that points you toward open source apps. So they should be ad-free and since they are open-source you can verify their claims if you really want to. Sorry, don't remember the name off the top of my head now though.
posted by trivia genius at 5:27 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You guys are awesome! I haven't marked a "best answer" yet because I found all of these suggestions really helpful. I'll do some experimenting over the weekend and post back in case anyone is monitoring this thread and wants to know what worked best for me. Thanks again, everyone!
posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:31 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm using a fairly light versio of the Opera web browser on my Android phone, and it seems to work rather well. I installed it using an .apt file rather than going through Play - look around on their web site.
posted by amtho at 8:00 PM on May 14, 2014

There's also Firefox OS, which may or may not work on the phone.

There's also a packet sniffer, so you can see what is being transmitted/received by your phone at any point.

Another app store I've used in the past.
posted by Solomon at 1:55 AM on May 15, 2014

It's really worth upgrading your macs to Mavericks if you can. I don't believe the versions of OSX you are running are getting security updates any longer & your privacy is going to take a very quick nosedive if your Mac gets infected with malware. Also, my personal experience has been that Mavericks is easily the best OSX release yet. Just because some of the post-Leopard releases were not so good shouldn't put you off upgrading - it's genuinely better than SL in my opinion.

You can install CyanogenMod on your Moto G: The latest versions of CyanogenMod come with their PrivacyGuard feature, which allows you to control which apps get access to your data on a case by case basis. Just install the latest M release (M6 at the time of writing). Highly recommended.
posted by pharm at 2:37 AM on May 15, 2014

Use Xprivacy over AppOps. AppOps blocks data requests and causes apps to crash, whereas Xprivacy simply returns bogus or empty data.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 7:21 AM on May 15, 2014

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