How To Not Satisfy Customers – Pixel 5 Android Crash

Recently I have bought a Pixel 5 which worked for about a week perfectly. While driving at a motorway and trying to connect to some Bluetooth device which did not work it rebooted a few minutes later while browsing the web. No problem, after a quick boot it will be right back, I thought. But I was greeted with this (German) error message:

“Cannot load Android system. Your data may be corrupt. If you continue to get this message, you may need to perform a factory data reset and erase all user data stored on this device.”

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Retry or “Delete Everything” which is the synonym for Factory Reset are the only options. That sounds like a bad trade. Several retries later it still refused to boot. In some forum I have read that I can copy the OS image back via the Debugger Interface. Luckily I had enabled Developer Mode on my phone. After downloading first the wrong version because Google had at that point in time the OS Image I had installed not listed (https://developers.google.com/android/ota#redfin) and did not mention that you cannot install an OS Image which is older than the current security patch level. I got it  via https://www.getdroidtips.com/february-2021-patch-pixel-device/ on my phone:

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Unfortunately that did also not work. There is a secret menu in Android which allows to view e.g. some logs and some other options which I cannot tell if they are useful.

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Here are some log messages which might or might not be useful to anyone else

Filesystem on /dev/block/by-name/metadata was not cleanly shutdown; state flags: 0x1, incompat feature flags: 0xc6

Unable to set property "ro.boottime.init.fsck.metadata" to "17": error code: 0x18


Unable to enable ext4 casefold on /dev/block/by-name/metadata because /system/bin/tune2fs is missing
google/reding/redfin
11/RQ2A.210305.006/719741
user/release-keys

Android System could not be loaded

At that point I gave up and opened a thread https://support.google.com/pixelphone/thread/105622202/pixel-5-boot-loop-how-to-recover-data?hl=en at the Pixel support forum. The problem is that I wanted to save my photos because I do not trust Google to not scan over my entire image gallery nor any other Cloud provider. A manual USB sync does the trick and it has served me well. The problem is that Android encrypts every sector on the phone so there is zero chance to read anything unless you have a booted Android system which has unlocked the master key.

I know Bitlocker from Windows which allows me to export my secret keys so I can later access the encrypted data. Perhaps I have missed some tutorial to export my phone encryption keys but it turns out there is no way to export the key! I find it hard to believe that an OS used by billions of people has no data recovery workflow I could follow.

Google wants me to sync everything to the Cloud or I will loose my data if the OS has a bad day on an otherwise fully functional device. If the phone would have an external SD slot it would not have encrypted my data by default (I can enable that if I need to) which would be ok. But Pixel phones have no SD Card slot. I feel thrown back to the 90s where the rule save often, save early was good advice to prevent data loss. 30 years and millions of engineering hours later using an Android device feels like a retro game with a bad user experience if you to not want to share your data with Google.

Unfortunately that is the end of the story. I am pretty good with computers and having studied particle physics has helped me to analyze and solve many difficult problems. But if a system is designed in a way to lock me out when an error occurs then the bets are off. It is certainly possible to fix these shortcomings but I guess this is pretty low on Googles Business priority list where the Cloud and AI the future and it does not matter on which device your data is living. In theory this sounds great, but  corner cases like what happens to unsynced photos/videos if the same error happens, or if you do not trust the Cloud provider are just minor footnotes on the way to the Cloud.

After a factory reset the phone worked and so far it has not happened again. I think the Cloud is a great thing but as a customer I should have a choice to not share my data with Google without the fear to risk complete data loss every time the OS has detected some inconsistency.