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Privacy-aware social apps

  • Privacy matters;
  • Social apps tend to be very aggressive regarding data collection;
  • You still want to keep up to date and in touch your friends/family.

Wondering how these points can all be respected at the same site? Keep on reading below for a few suggestions on apps that may help you with that, as well as some of my personal thoughts regarding each one of them.

Contents

Disclaimer

As boring as disclaimers are, and as obvious as what I am going to state is, it is still worth reiterating that the only effective way to prevent internet behemoths from collecting your data is by not using them services. At all. I do think that would be an extreme measure and, arguably, not 100% effective since some of them can track you even when your not on their ecosystem.

Anyway, there are some nice things about social media, and this is probably the easiest way to keep in touch with other people — especially during the quarantine caused by COVID-19.

The purpose of this list is to provide you with a few apps to consider as replacements for some other social apps most people are using, in order to allow you to still use the service without freely compromising one’s privacy.

Since these are social apps, all of them do need permission to access the Internet, which means you still need to trust the app is not sending unexpected data to outside servers.

Finally, all following suggestions have been explicitly tested by me and are, in fact, among the ones I use for my daily routine.

Selection criteria

Replacing Facebook original app with Facebook Lite simply won’t do. Tracking is the same regardless. So simply swapping an app for another one capable of doing the same thing is not enough, we need to find apps capable of delivering a similar service with added privacy options. With that in mind I consider the main requirement of any such apps to be open source. Although there may be other great options, I am not considering any closed source one.

As mentioned above, I will not recommend any app which I could not personally try. Since I do not use iPhones, my recommendations are limited to Android phones.

The List

Without further ado, let’s get to the list of recommendations.

Facebook

Facebook may not be the main social app among younger audiences — which tend be early adopters of new platforms. Still, it is the most used one globally, and has a large penetration among adults.

Recommendation: Frost for Facebook

Frost

Frost for Facebook is a very modern-looking alternative for Facebook and Messenger. It uses Google Material Design, so the usage does differ a bit from the original app, but the familiar design guidelines means it should be pretty intuitive for most Android owners.

Contrary to some other similar alternatives to Facebook, Frost does allow the user to send and receive messages, with support for emojis and stickers. Receiving audio messages also works fine.

Regarding permissions, you can optionally allow the app to access your device storage and location, for uploading photos and for checking in to nearby locations. These permissions are optional, though, and can be revoked at any time.

Notice you cannot use the app without logging in, so Facebook will still track your activity inside the social network: all your comments, reactions and messages will be tracked, stored and possessed by the company. Photos you upload will be analysed and your face will be identified. Your usage patterns, such as, the people you interact the most or the groups you’re more active in, will still be considered and associated to your profile.

What this app does prevent is Facebook from accessing other data that may be stored in or that is produced by your mobile: your microphone, camera, device contacts, location history and the like.

Disclaimer: I have completely stopped using Facebook for quite some time, so I have not used Frost since last year.

Youtube

Among social networks, YouTube is my favourite one, even though I do not use any of the social features. It is a great source for good quality content.

Recommendation: NewPipe

NewPipe

While this app does not allow any kind of account connection (which I would not use anyway), it has many features and allows one to have a great experience. It is possible to subscribe to channels and create playlists like you would normally do, albeit these will not be linked to any Google account. All the storage is local to the device, thus, if it is lost or formatted, all settings will be lost, unless there was a previous backup — which the app does make very easy to do.

Some extra features allow you to easily adjust brightness and volume during playback. Video quality can also be chosen (and enforced), there is full support for closed captions and the playback rate can also be adjusted. Videos can be downloaded for later or be played on background, allowing you can use NewPipe as a media player.

The app does not use any kind of SDK or API by Google, it acts by requesting the videos as webpages and parsing relevant data. No special permissions are required, but you may allow storage access to export your settings. Since there is no account information, your activity is not directly connected to you or to your account, but Google is still be able to profile your usage by your IP address, but I personally do not consider that a great concern.

Bear in mind that using the app, all advertisement is being completely removed from the videos you watch and, while that does make the experience more enjoyable, it also removes a potentially important revenue source from the creators of the content you enjoy watching. I strongly recommend finding other ways to support them, be it through Patreon, merchandising, or any other means you can.

Instagram

Another social network owned by Facebook, Instagram does have a larger user base among younger audiences and the same appetite for data collection.

Recommendation: InstaGrabber

NYC Skyline

InstaGrabber is a very convenient client for Instagram. Differently than the other apps seen above, there is a login feature but it is completely optional, and you can choose to do so according to the range of features you want to use.

If you choose not to log in, public profiles can still be seen and bookmarked for later. By logging in, pretty much all of the standard features can be used: likes, comments and messages. You can watch stories but not record them.

Bear in mind that, just as it is the case for Frost, all your activity inside the app will be logged by Facebook should one choose to log in. The kind of content you see and the different interactions you have inside the app will still be linked to your account, but no extra data, such as camera and microphone, will be shared.

The app is undergoing a rebrand (from InstaGrabber to Barinsta). I am using the old name because it is the one used on F-Droid. I will update this post accordingly when the transition is complete.

Disclaimer: Although this kind of app is not explicitly forbidden by Instagram Terms of Usage and there are many similar apps available, it is unclear whether Facebook is willing to ban accounts due to usage from the app. I have been using the app with no problems. If you use the app, you are doing so at your own risk.

Summary

Social media is designed to catch your attention and your data. It does have quite a few benefits, though, so eliminating it completely may not be possible or even desired. There are some methods that allow you to increase privacy without completely letting go of your favourite social apps.

Bear in mind these suggestions help decrease data collection but do not stop it.

Did you know these apps? Have I skipped your favourite ones? Let me know in the comments! 😉


Cover photo by Glen Carrie

Breno Beraldo

Just your average engineer-coder-gamer. Trying to catch up on my always growing backlog of personal projects and books to read. Firmly believes Python — not French — is the most romantic language.


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