Indian government backs Bharat OS to safeguard data privacy

Putting an end to your data footprint?
1 February 2023

Ssshhh – the BharOS promises not to phone your data home to Google, or anyone else.

The Indian government is backing an alternative, independent smartphone operating system, called Bharat OS (BharOS). Free of both Android and iOS, BharOS pushes the idea of data privacy, and how valuable its users’ data actually are.

The operating system is being produced by JandK Operations Private Limited (AKA, JandKops), a company nurtured by the Indian Institute of Technology as an incubator project. It’s based on AOSP (Android open source project), but will ship free of Google Play Services, and be populated by apps from an independent app store.

There are several independent smartphone OSes that adopt much the same ethos, for many of the same reasons behind the Indian state’s promotion of the BharOS project. Perhaps the best known is LineageOS, which can run on dozens of phone models from manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Google. The builds – usually discrete to a particular model – are often maintained by enthusiasts and users, and as well as promoting data security and privacy, they can significantly extend the lifespans of older phones, boosting the phone’s green credentials.

The economics of abandonment.

Because mobile manufacturers’ revenues come from the sale of hardware, it’s in their best interests to stop supporting older models with security and software updates, thus consigning aging hardware to the “old phone drawer,” a fixture in many tech lovers’ homes, equivalent to a private landfill, but with memories and occasional tinkering.

By installing an independent operating system (a process that need not necessarily be as complex as it’s often portrayed as being), users get many more years of life from perfectly usable and powerful devices, but with security support from the OS maker or the developer community.

In addition to these user benefits, BharOS also addresses the issue of data integrity. Both Android and the Google Play Services API (plus many common applications) constantly stream users’ information to Google and various third parties. On average, an Android phone will send between 12MB and 18MB of data daily to Google or third parties, often via tracking add-ons baked into apps’ code or the OS itself. One project by the New York Times, for example, found that an average journalist’s phone contained hundreds of trackers, each of which gathered unknown data, not limited to the phone’s location, user’s contacts, browsing habits, and any on-phone activity.

Private by default.

Like LineageOS, CalyxOS, GrapheneOS, Sailfish, and Ubuntu Touch, Bharat OS will form the basis of a smartphone ecosystem that is private by default. By removing Google Play Services (on which Android relies), OS-level data collection and metric-gathering are removed. Then, by vetting which apps appear in the ‘approved’ Indian non-Google Play Store, users will be protected from apps that are known to gather information on them.

Reports state that Bharat OS will likely allow sideloading of apps, meaning that most applications will at least be able to be installed on phones running the OS, so users can ‘opt-in’ to applications known to voraciously capture user data (the Facebook app comes to mind).

Limited choices?

The main drawback for the Indian project will be the range of phones on which Bharat OS will run. Even projects with relatively long histories like LineageOS will by no means run on all hardware. CalyxOS and GrapheneOS run only on Google Pixel hardware, and pure-play Linux OSes like Sailfish and Ubuntu Touch are only viable on maybe a dozen models or fewer.

The success of BharOS will rest, therefore, on manufacturers being open enough about their products’ hardware to allow the privacy-focused operating system to run. Without a national government applying pressure to the likes of Samsung, there are few incentives to let independent developers run their own OSes on manufacturers’ hardware. That’s because users buy fewer new handsets as soon as a device’s lifespan is increased. Plus, the OEM applications shipping with many Android phones will no longer phone home with users’ data, meaning the BharOS should ensure better data privacy than any of the major players.

The door to modern life.

The final piece in the puzzle belongs to the application developers on whom rests, with apologies for the hyperbole, much of the ability to take part in modern life. People now rely on apps from banks, insurance companies, taxi providers, public service organizations, etc. to simply exist in society. If those apps don’t run because they rely on the Google Play Services’ API, users won’t switch operating systems.

The promotion and development of BharOS will need to be a large project if it’s to find a home on enough device models to become any kind of new norm, or at least, a new alternative to the mainstream data-streamers. Additionally, the Indian government will have to mobilize to pressure large international phone manufacturers and app developers to ensure the project is successful. The upside of this task is the size of the Indian population: a billion people represents a significant market of smartphone users.

The big question.

Will people in the 2020s ditch their popular, easy, OS for an innovation that keeps their data much more safe? The launch of the BharOS will, if nothing else, act as a social experiment in whether convenience or data privacy is more important to the mass consumer.

Watch this space.