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Restart Podcast Ep. 56: A smartphone OS that respects user data privacy, with Gaël Duval

/e/ ecosystem

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To kick off the autumn season of the podcast, we talked to French entrepreneur and founder of e Foundation, Gaël Duval. Duval has spent years developing alternative operating systems in an effort to improve user experience and efficiency. Now, with his non-profit organisation e Foundation, he is prioritising user data privacy with /e/, an operating system for smartphones. We find out why a change in our approach to data protection is such a necessity.

From Mandrake to /e/

So we begin with the critical question: why did Duval become interested in user privacy and data protection? He tells us of how his previous work such as Mandrake Linux, was guided by usability and efficiency. Over time though, Duval noticed a shocking decrease in user privacy and a lack of government regulation in this area. So, he created the /e/ operating system to “give users a way to escape the mass surveillance of personal data.” 

‘De-Googling’ and data privacy

At present, /e/ is the main product of e Foundation. It offers an alternative to iOS and Android that prioritises user data protection while ensuring ease of use. When informed about the dangers of data tracking, many smartphone users are concerned with these issues. So why is next to nothing being done to stop it? Duval explains why many users do not seem to be bothered in an actionable way to protect their privacy. He says that often it comes down to a – possibly unfounded – trust in well-known brands, and a misunderstanding of how our data could potentially be used. 

“I really support the idea that by default our personal data should belong to us and not to others. If you want to give your personal data, you can do it, but do it explicitly. Do it on purpose but [don’t] let all your personal data be cached for some reason that we don’t always know.”

Integral to /e/ is the concept of ‘de-googling’ a device, and on a larger scale, the systems that we use. Duval explains the many inconspicuous and insidious ways that the biggest technology companies are collecting our data – with Apple and Google forming a duopoly that holds the most control. Piece by piece, e Foundation has removed the integration of Google services from their operating system in order to eliminate any unnecessary data tracking performed by Android. Not only does he question the data practices that these companies use but also the market control they have. He thinks that there needs to be a shift in power to make OSes and app creation more open. 

The ecosystem of an OS

Duval explains the process it takes to create the complex ‘ecosystem’ of an OS and how they use open source software to develop an OS that can work for all. Every part of /e/, from cloud services to the way that users sign in, has been built with privacy in mind. What sets it apart from other alternative OSes is their effort to ensure compatibility with users’ existing digital habits. For some, it is impossible not to use major apps like Instagram and WhatsApp. While these might have questionable approaches to data gathering, Duval stresses the need for users to have the option to access them for /e/ to compete with mainstream OSes.

Finally, we touch on a topic that we are all too familiar with – software obsolescence. Most smartphone manufacturers refuse to commit to long-term software and security updates. Duval reassures us that built into the ethos of /e/ is a commitment to combat software obsolescence by producing patches and long-term updates that secure the OS. While there are of course limits to this, it is clear that the approach e Foundation is taking is much more sustainable than that of the major OS creators.

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[Photo courtesy of e Foundation]

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