Buying Guides Security

The 4 Most Secure Phones for Privacy

James Frew 29-07-2020

Recent years have shown us how insecure our smartphones can be. They pose a risk if we misplace them, as all our confidential data is stored on the device, but they also represent an enormous privacy risk.

Advertisement

Google and Apple monitor everything you do on your smartphone, and then manufacturers will add their own invasive software into the mix. The situation can seem bleak for the privacy-enthusiast.

Fortunately, you do have options if you’re after the best phone for privacy.

Choosing the Most Secure Phone

Before diving into the recommendations, it’s important to note the unique considerations of choosing a phone for privacy. The smartphone experience is based on data collection and personalization.

First-party apps like Google Photos or Apple Maps, and third-party options like Instagram and WhatsApp, rely on capturing your personal information. However, they are also integral to the way we’ve come to use our phones.

Opting for a privacy-focused smartphone will mean that you lose out on some of these features and services. Of course, you may be able to work around these app-based restrictions. However, this also applies to the operating system as a whole.

Advertisement

Generally, privacy-friendly smartphones are less intuitive and more complicated thanks to the inclusion of encrypted software, fewer social platforms, and lack of personalization.

This doesn’t mean that they are unusable, though. However, you need to be aware of the significant differences between a regular iPhone or Android device and a secure smartphone going into your purchase.

1. Purism Librem 5

Librem 5 from PurismPurism, a social purpose corporation, has been producing privacy-friendly Linux-based laptops and computers since 2014. The Purism Librem 5 is the company’s first smartphone. The device was launched as a crowd-funded project in 2017, with the first batch of phones shipping in late 2019.

The phone runs PureOS, Purism’s privacy-focused Linux operating system. As such, the software is open-source and comes with free and open-source software (FOSS) pre-installed. As a result, there is no access to the Google Play Store or other mainstream app stores. The default web-browser, Pure Browser, is a modified version of Firefox with DuckDuckGo as the default search engine.

Advertisement

Crucially, the phone also has three hardware-based killswitches that can entirely disable the camera and microphone, remove power from the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth adaptors, and shut down all network connectivity, including GPS. As for the remaining hardware, the Librem 5 has a 3,500mAh removable battery, a 13MP primary camera, and 32GB of onboard storage, expandable up to 2TB via microSD.

Purism has committed to continuous updates for the Librem 5. This is in stark contrast to Google and Apple, who typically only support a phone for two or three years. The phone charges via USB-C, and supports wireless Bluetooth connectivity. Fortunately, there is also a 3.5mm connection known as the Courage Jack for those who still prefer to use the traditional input.

On paper, the Librem 5 makes a convincing case as the best phone for privacy. However, before you hand over your cash, take a look at our review of the Purism Librem 5. The trade-off between privacy and usability is evident here, and the phone has some notable flaws. However, if your primary goal is improved smartphone privacy, then the Librem 5 is still a good option.

2. Fairphone 3

Fairphone 3 front with screen onThe Fairphone 3 is an ethical, sustainable, and repairable Android-based smartphone. The coverage of the device is usually focused on the supply chain and repairability, both important considerations. However, the Fairphone 3 is also a suitable Android smartphone for the privacy-conscious.

Advertisement

In keeping with its ethical stance, Fairphone also understands that many people don’t want a Google-based Android experience. The phone ships with Fairphone OS, a custom edition of Android 9, pre-installed. Thankfully, there is also the option to install alternative operating systems.

Fairphone develops a de-Googled operating system known as Fairphone Open. This was initially released alongside the Fairphone 2 and is currently in early-stage development for the Fairphone 3. You can install Fairphone Open on the Fairphone 3, although the process isn’t straightforward.

If you’d prefer to opt for an easy to install option, you can unlock the Fairphone 3’s bootloader and install your favorite alternative operating system. As the device was launched in 2019, third-party development is still ongoing. If you need a more immediate option and don’t mind using older hardware, there is an active community creating LineageOS and Ubuntu Touch ports for the Fairphone 2.

The Fairphone 3 is powered by a Snapdragon 632 processor, has 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of onboard storage. The 3,000mAh battery is removable and replaceable, and charges via USB-C. The phone supports Bluetooth 5, NFC, and dual SIM operations. There is a 12MP primary camera and an 8MP front-facing lens.

Advertisement

To find out more about the device, check out our review of the Fairphone 3.

3. Pine64 PinePhone

linux-distros-pinephoneThe Pine64 PinePhone is a Linux-based alternative to the Purism Librem 5. However, the PinePhone isn’t specially adapted for increased security and privacy. Instead, it’s strength comes from the fact that the phone runs an open-source operating system and relies solely on open-source software.

The PinePhone is designed to run a variety of Linux operating systems. There are pre-configured variants of the phone available like the PinePhone Community Edition: PostmarketOS available to buy directly from Pine64. However, once you’ve got the physical device in your hands, you can install any of the 17 currently supported operating systems.

The PinePhone uses the Allwinner A64 quad-core system-on-a-chip (SoC), has 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. It is powered by a 3,000mAh removable battery, which can be recharged via USB-C. There is a 5MP primary camera and a 2MP selfie camera, too. There are privacy killswitches for mobile connectivity, Wi-Fi, the microphone, the speaker, and both cameras.

The phone is easily repairable—the components are conveniently accessible with just a screwdriver—and will have a production lifespan of five years, so should be supported until at least 2024. In early 2020, Pine64 announced the PinePhone UBports Community Edition.

4. Apple iPhone 11

The smartphones we’ve listed so far are not mainstream options and many of them appeal only to a small subset of users. However, not everyone has the time or resources to invest in these options. As a result, it is worth considering a readily available option, too.

In a move that some people may find controversial, our final choice for the most secure phone available today is the Apple iPhone 11. Although you may question whether Apple is truly a privacy-friendly company, these devices are regarded as more private than Android smartphones.

The main reason for this is the difference in the business model between Apple and Google. Apple devices are, on the whole, quite expensive and tend to encourage vendor lock-in. So, once you have an iPhone, you’ll consider purchasing a MacBook, Apple Watch, AirPods, and so on. In effect, Apple is a hardware business.

On the other hand, Google provides Android (mostly) for free to manufacturers who then produce a wide variety of smartphones. It recoups its investment by capturing your personal data. This data is used to inform the ads you see across the apps you use, the websites you visit, and wherever you are signed in to a Google account.

However, that’s not to say that Apple is perfect for privacy-enthusiasts. The company still gathers data about you and your habits, but this is used to customize your experience with Apple products, rather than create an advertisement profile. Much of the data is stored locally on your device rather than synced to the cloud.

The iPhone 11 is the latest smartphone from Apple and runs the most recent edition of its iOS mobile operating system. The device features a 6.1-inch Retina display, is IP68-rated for water and dust resistance, and uses Face ID for biometric authentication.

The Best Phone for Privacy

In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013, public interest in privacy grew, eventually leading to a new wave of privacy-focused products. While there are sometimes trade-offs, this is inevitable as the mainstream options rely on data collection to function.

We’ve rounded up some of the best smartphones for privacy available today, but many of them run Linux operating systems rather than Android or iOS. If you haven’t made the switch to Linux on desktop, check out the things Ubuntu does better than Windows 7 Things That Ubuntu Does Better Than Windows Is Ubuntu really just for nerds? No! Ubuntu is as easy to use as Windows... and in some ways, Ubuntu is better than Windows 10! Read More .

Related topics: Librem 5, Smartphone, Smartphone Privacy.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Tehgram
    August 7, 2020 at 5:01 pm

    I think I prefer the iPhone 11

  2. Zlatan
    August 6, 2020 at 6:46 am

    Saying that PinePhone isn't specifically designed for privacy and security while praising Librem5 because of hardware kill switches is odd, especially because even in article it is mentioned that PinePhone has exact same switches.

    • James Frew
      August 6, 2020 at 6:58 am

      The Librem 5 has hardware switches and many other device-specific features, plus the PureOS software which are all specifically designed to be privacy-friendly. The device is even marketed as a privacy-protecting phone.

      The PinePhone is not a device designed explicitly for privacy. It has hardware switches like the Librem 5, but it is naturally more private as it runs Linux rather than Android or iOS.

      • Zlatan
        August 6, 2020 at 7:38 am

        You are running into loop. PinePhone is designed for privacy, it is just not marketing it that way and marketing has nothing to do with technical specs and capabilities of devices. Librem5 doesn't have any upper hand regarding that to PinePhone. Also, you're thinking of posh (shell used on phone) and not PureOS in particular here (side note: I am the architect of PureOS) because PinePhone also has distros on it running posh.
        The title "most secure for privacy" can be improved because there is a difference between privacy and security, quite a bit actually.

        Disclaimer: former Purism CTO

        • James Frew
          August 6, 2020 at 9:06 am

          Having read over an interview with you, it sounds like you had a rough time at the company, particuarly in relation to the development of the Librem 5. Some of it, undoubtably, is marketing. Evidently, that's also part of the reason behind the vastly different prices of the two devices.

          Your comments suggest that I have been in some way critical of the PinePhone, referring to it as an inferior device. That's not the case, and it was included in this roundup as it matches the same criteria as the other choices. People are free to choose whichever device they believe suits their needs best.

          You'll also notice that I linked to our review of the Librem 5, which wasn't, on the whole, a positive one.

          For others reading these comments, this is the interview:
          https://www.phoronix.com/scan.php?page=news_item&px=Zlatan-Todoric-Interview

        • Zlatan
          August 6, 2020 at 11:34 am

          *replying on my comment as I don't have reply button on your last one

          "However, the PinePhone isn’t specially adapted for increased security and privacy" I was referring to this - if you are giving points to Librem5 for this, I am just letting you know they are basically on same level regarding such designs. So it is either non of two is adapted for security and privacy or both are. Unless you're trying to market one as superior to other, but these are not the differences. And the price differences have nothing to do with marketing - Pine64 is community oriented and has strong knowledge/foothold in China, while Purism is profit oriented and has almost none power in China and they miscalculated how much funds requires to make your own product from scratch (remember Canonical's campaign?).

          My rough time at company has nothing with the article, but yes, you read it correctly. Also, that puts me into unique position to comment it correctly, especially as I am fully aware of Pine community. Speaking from marketing side - Pine is shipping a lot of phones, Purism not so much.

          I am not here doing personal vendetta nor do I have opinion on review or anything that much, I am just correcting wording so readers have clear understanding of each device. :)

  3. dragonmouth
    July 31, 2020 at 1:51 pm

    While these phones may be secure in their virgin state, they become less so with each app that users download for them, eventually becoming malware-ridden junk.

    The problem with smartphone security is not the device, it is the users who having bought "One of the four most secure phones" download all kinds of apps of unknown provenance in the belief that once a secure phone, always a secure phone.

    • James Frew
      July 31, 2020 at 5:14 pm

      Absolutely. As I note before the recommendations, the way we use our smartphones relies on data capture, and as a result, minimizing our privacy. It's one thing to opt for a more private phone, but your choices and behaviours also have to change.

    • Amos Batto
      August 1, 2020 at 2:44 pm

      If you buy a Linux phone like the Purism Librem 5 or PinePhone, there is very little malware that you can install. The apps in the Librem 5's PureOS Store and Ubuntu Touch's OpenStore are all free/open source, so it is much harder to insert malware without being detected.

      You can also install an AOSP-derivative on your phone such as LineageOS or /e/ and then only install software from the F-Droid repository, so you only have free/open source software on your phone. I have been doing that for the last 5 years. My Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 runs better on LineageOS + F-Droid than Android + Play Store.

      If you don't want to install it yourself, buy a deGoogled phones from the /e/ Foundation:
      https://esolutions.shop/