Mixed Signals is a new regular column from Tech Advisor exploring the state of the smartphone today.
Emblazoned in the good ol’ red, white, and blue in almost every product shot, the Freedom Phone is transparent about its potential audience: patriotic Americans who want to simultaneously stick it to Silicon Valley and China, while protecting their privacy in the process.
The only problem? It’s a privacy and security nightmare that’s still made in China, still powered by Google software, and seems positioned to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers who simply don’t know any better.
The Freedom Phone is the brainchild of Erik Finman, who describes himself as “the world’s youngest Bitcoin millionaire”, and says the new phone is part of his efforts to “fight for free speech.”
Today I'm announcing the Freedom Phone.— ERIK FINMAN (@erikfinman) July 14, 2021
This is the first major pushback on the Big Tech companies that attacked us - for just thinking different.
Complete with it's own Uncensorable App Store & Privacy Features.
We're finally taking back control. https://t.co/tOSnuxncfd pic.twitter.com/Hykp08ITCQ
The Freedom Phone site is big on promises, but light on details, skirting clear of detailed specs – or really any facts at all – in favour of persistently pushing buy links for the $499 device.
“Large Storage. 6inch Screen. Great Camera.” is about all the site has to say about the handset’s hardware, which is otherwise left to the imagination. Internet sleuths quickly realised that the phone is almost certainly a re-branded Umidigi A9 Pro – a Chinese phone that’s available from AliExpress from just $120.
Finman claims the handset is “comparable to the best phones on the market,” which is true in that I can make a comparison: if the Freedom Phone is in actuality an Umidigi A9 Pro, it’s substantially worse than the best phones on the market. The budget Helio P60 chipset, 10W charging and basic camera spec reveal this for what it is: a budget phone. Perhaps good value at $120, but certainly not at $499.
So what’s Finman doing to justify that $380 markup? That’ll be FreedomOS, “the first mass-marketable mobile phone operating system based on free speech.”
There’s little explanation of how free speech is baked into the codebase, especially since this is almost certainly running the same Android 10 software built into the A9 Pro. Of course, Android is from Google, but is open source, which is sort of like free speech. But wait, isn’t Google part of the Big Tech that Finman is fighting?
Fortunately, Freedom Phone buyers won’t have to give Google a penny when they use the phone, as they can avoid the Google Play Store and instead stick to the “uncensorable” built-in app store, PatriApp.
“We don’t ban apps,” Finman insists. “Period.”
That might be welcome news if you want to install Parler, but there are plenty of non-political reasons to ban apps. Will PatriApp ban apps with illegal content? Apps with child pornography? What about apps loaded with malware and other security threats?
A key part of the Freedom Phone pitch – and no doubt a huge appeal to its potential audience – is that this is a phone that protects your data, that protects your privacy, that keeps you free from censorship and secure from Silicon Valley.
There are, no doubt, privacy benefits to a phone that doesn’t come pre-loaded with Google software, and it’s understandable that there are those keen for a smartphone free of the pervasive influence of the world’s biggest tech companies.
But Finman’s Freedom Phone simply swaps the devil you know for the one you don’t. Google may have less of your data, but without the latest Android security patches, without a robust and secure app store, without ongoing software support, Freedom Phone owners are arguably more vulnerable to malicious actors.
Perhaps the most telling part of the whole project is the repeated insistence – both in the phone’s launch video and on its site – that it’s quick and easy to transfer your SIM card to the new phone.
Tech-savvy buyers don’t need to be told how to switch phones. But Finman isn’t targeting people who understand phones, who know how to assess their hardware or software. He’s targeting people who don’t know better, who don’t understand how their phone does or doesn’t use their data, who will believe his brazen lies about the quality of the hardware on offer here.
The most embarrassing part of this whole debacle is that the Freedom Phone doesn’t even look like the best Freedom Phone on the market.
Before Finman ever came along, another company was selling Freedom Phones on a stars and stripes-encrusted website already, with similarly grandiose promises about privacy and security.
I certainly can't vouch for the legitimacy or quality of the operation, but at least on paper they’ve got Finman beat hands down. For starters, the hardware they’re selling is refurbished Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL handsets – not Google’s finest flagship phones, to be fair, but a damn sight better than an Umidigi.
More importantly, they’ve replaced Google’s own OS not with the vague promises of Finman’s FreedomOS, but with the well regarded open source Android project GrapheneOS, which strips away Google services and builds in enhanced encryption, along with other privacy and security features – without leaving unaware users vulnerable to an unmanaged app store.
At the end of the day, anyone really worried about their phone’s privacy will get more benefit from learning security best practices than from relying on their phone – Freedom or otherwise – to do the job for them.
But it’s hard to imagine a phone worse suited to deliver on its promises than the Freedom Phone. It’s anti-Big Tech but runs on Google’s OS; it’s designed for China sceptics but the hardware was built there; and it’ll keep you secure by making you reliant on an app store likely to be overrun with malware.
I’m not sure if you can put a price on freedom, but $499.99 certainly ain’t it.