I used to like Google. A lot. They claimed not to be evil, and then frays started to appear, and then David Mitchell confirmed that they were probably evil.
As a proper beginning to this post though, let it be known that I am not an IT privacy or security expert, amateur or even that interested in the workings of such things. I am someone who feels a moral compulsion to complain about big-business and the government, and how they are invading my privacy and the privacy of everyone else. Trying desperately to avoid scoring a Godwin Point so early in the article, I would like you to imagine a point in not-too-distant history (I’m looking at you, 1930s–1940s) and how much worse this period could have been had the government in question had the amount of data about their people as our governments do on us. Imagine if their government had been able to purchase last weeks shopping list from a large company, that illustrated what kind of things you bought, consequently revealing all sorts of things about you.
I transgress though. Admittedly, it is a bit big-headed of me to think that a god-like entity like Google would be specifically interested in my data — they harvest it from everyone and sell the data, share the data, mix it into their favourite cocktails and generally use it for nefarious purposes. It’s like the Soylent Green of the past decade or so. There is always the counter argument: “I get Google for free and in return they get my browsing/life habits”. It makes me a bit uncomfortable — just because I have nothing to hide doesn’t mean that I don’t want it to be private anyway.
Moving on though, to Google Play Services. I have a Samsung phone, which has a model number. It might be an S-something-or-other, and that I don’t know what kind of phone I have seems to be indicative of a non-Apple user. Just saying. Anyway, I have had it for a year or two (again, indicative of an non-Apple user) and it works. Well, at least, it worked. I don’t have very many apps installed — weather, maps, a fitness tracker, eBay, a news website app and the Monty Python Silly Walk game — just basic stuff really — but my phone recently became constipated, like an old person missing out on their daily serving of prune juice. And the battery was lasting for less than 12 hours. So, while waiting a thousand years for my news app to open a couple of weeks ago, a warning thing popped up saying “Google Maps has stopped” — which was odd, since I didn’t have location services switched on, the global satellite thing was off, and I was also not using Maps. I ignored it, and assumed that maybe it hadn’t shut down properly the last time I used it.
In retrospect, this was an optimistic thought, and in subsequent weeks, this infuriating little message kept popping up. I checked the apps section of the phone several times – and not only after the message popped up, but at random, possibly surprising times for the phone and Maps was not running. A few things were running, but nothing that looked like maps, and in my frustration, I shut down Google Play Services. My phone instantly sped up, and the battery lasted quite a long time. Google Play Services is a bit like a zombie though, and kept restarting itself at random times, which I would mostly be made aware of because of the random message that “Maps had stopped”. Again.
This morning, I got fed up with the whole thing and turned to the Internet to find out if I really needed it on my phone.
A few hardcore people on forums who only wanted phones as opposed to mini-entertainment hubs were getting along just fine without it. I then came across this comment, from Android Central (not sure if they are actually affiliated with Android), made by so-called “Moderator Team Leader” Paul:
Bottom line if you remove Google Play first you may have bad effects removing it…. Second… If you don’t want Google then I question why you decided on an Android based product, especially a Nexus that is Pure Vanilla Android at its finest.
Well, this was vague (deerrr… bad effects), and mildly insulting. Pure Vanilla Android? Is he talking about using a less straight-forward Android in some kinky adult situation? It’s hard to tell. There was a small scandal about how horrible this dude was on the forum, which I enjoyed immensely, before deleting Google Play Services.
So. Since you are reading this, you can assume that the universe didn’t implode and/or explode. My phone similarly did not implode nor break forever. Some things did stop working like my news app and my weather app and Gmail, which all said that they needed Google Play Services to work.
I looked up the Permissions that all of these apps needed — and I was surprised that neither of them needed any special permissions. Looking at the eBay app, it needed several permissions (photos, camera etc) but this seemed normal, since I do sell stuff occasionally. It then clicked that Google Play Services must be in some kind of data exchange agreement with the news app and the weather people, so thought I would look up what permissions that Google Play Services needed.
Here is the list:
- Device and app history (read sensitive log data and retrieve running applications)
- Identity (manage accounts list, read profile data, discover known accounts, write to your profile data)
- Calendar (read calendar events plus confidential information — huh? )
- Contacts (write and read contact data — presumably for syncing with my other Google accounts)
- Location (coarse — network based, and fine, GPS location)
- Phone (directly call phone numbers, modify phone state, directly call any phone numbers)
- Camera (take pictures and videos)
- Microphone (record audio)
- Wi-Fi connection information (view Wi-Fi state)
- Blue tooth connection (blue tooth administration)
- Wearable sensors/activity data
- allow Wi-Fi multicast reception
- read your social stream
- act as an account authenticator
- control flashlight
- view network state
- kill background processes
- disable keylock
- read Google service configuration
- create bluetooth connections
- read sync setting
- display system level alerts
- modify global settings
- full internet access
- change network connectivity
- change Wi-Fi state
- control vibrator (was this the function that the old vanilla Nexus didn’t have?)
- write subscribed feeds
A lot of this stuff seems to indicate that if you were to get rid of Google Play Services, your phone would cease to function. I am still able to use Maps, the camera and the Polaroid app; send SMSs and browse the Internet. After the Gmail app ceased to work (needs Google Play Services) I switched over to the built-in email app, which works well. I haven’t yet tried to make a phone call, but I assume it will continue to work as before. Bluetooth still works — I have a Pebble watch which connects via blue-tooth and I will check in the car later on that I can still connect to the car phone thingo. Incidentally, I am also using my phone as a hotspot for my laptop right now as there is no other internet access at my current location, so it seems that it still works as well.
I can only conclude then that, since my phone functions (notably better than it did with Google Play Services installed), there is some hardcore data-collection and mining going on — with some location tracking thrown in for fun. I had a quick look for Google Play Services data-mining concerns (through Google — silly me) and mostly came across some websites about their data-mining in general, and a few articles about it clogging up your phone and wrecking the battery. Perhaps I had the wrong search terms or something.
Anyway — I will make an update to this in the future if my phone stops working, but in the meantime, I may have gotten rid of what seems to be a fairly dense layer of Gooveillance, which is my new super-clever portmanteau of Google and surveillance. You can thank me later.
I still need to make the move from Google somehow — I have started an email account with ProtonMail, who offer end-to-end encryption between their users, and a kind of web-based-link-clicky-verification thing for users to non-users, so this is a start.
Oh — also — please feel free to comment if you happen to know what any of the aforementioned permissions actually do and how they might benefit the phone (Except if you are anti-vanilla-phone-Moderator-Team-Leader-Paul). I might make it a project to look at one every day to explain in this article.
Update 1: (I haven’t actually published the article yet) Phone is telling me that an application (Maps..) needs Google Play Services to run. Interesting, since I am not currently using maps, and I haven’t used maps since I last checked that it was working, before shutting it down.