This past week, two major articles resonated and caught my eye. Coincidentally, both zero in on the issue of unwanted data collection, and tracking, that certain apps and services carry out on your phone without you knowing and, most certainly, without your consent.
There’s the Wired.com piece: “All The Ways Google Tracks You—And How To Stop It;” as well as the Washington Post feature, “It’s the middle of the night. Do you know who your iPhone is talking to?”
If you take a few minutes to read through these two stories, you will discover that many applications that serve purposes other than tracking, actually do track how, when, and where you use your phone constantly.
What’s more, it’s not all about apps, iOS, and Android -as operating systems of your smartphones and iPhones- do this too.
Through your gadget, they collect, retain data for their own commercial benefit, or hand it over to the likes of Google, Nike, and other interested entities. They build your persona and survey your commercial behavior, and then resell this data to marketing agencies or use it themselves to serve custom ads.
The amount of data these trackers upload from your phones can be huge. And, if you’re not hitched up to a wi-fi network, the transfer of all this data every night is costing you much more than your privacy!
How Do They Track Your Behavior?
As a matter of fact, the tracking these apps or operating systems carry out works a lot like cookies. Some apps utilize services, like Amplitude, a behavioral analytics platform with over 600 customers -of the likes of Microsoft, Intuit, and Twitter-, to gather and analyze customer data.
In a nutshell, there are little services logging your moves throughout the device/application, storing things such as usage tendencies, your searches, a digital print of your device to identify it, among other things.
The dirty little secret is… Most of the time these tracking services, or integrated app services, are -most of the time- hidden from the user and ON with no direct consent request. Usually, it is up to the user to find how and where to disable what they allow you to disable. What’s more, sometimes the purpose of the app is nothing but a facade, and their main business is data collection!
How to Safeguard Your Data
Obviously, your personal data is at risk from this pervasive tracking, but there are ways to make it harder for these unfair players and to simply limit the collection of those who properly give you a way out. Here are four steps you can take to protect your data from unwanted tracking.
1. Check Your App Settings and Location Services
One of the best ways to limit the ability of data collection is to limit the apps on your phone that are allowed to access your data and location. Popular map and ride-sharing apps need your location to work, but shouldn’t have free reign to track your every movement.
Open your phone’s settings, and then under Privacy, you can access your Location Services. Change the location services from always-on, to only allowing access while the app is open and in use. Check your other privacy settings to turn off privileges that you are also not comfortable with.
2. Turn On Browser Privacy
Top phone browsers include privacy settings that simply need to be turned on. Visit Chrome, Firefox, or Safari’s settings to control pop-ups, restrict cross-site tracking, and review assigned certificates.
3. Uninstall Unnecessary Apps
Apps, as mentioned in the Washington Post’s article, can leak data even when your phone is locked and at rest. While your weather widget or Spotify don’t pose much of a threat, some simple apps might be working against you.
General productivity apps and copy-cat games tend to exploit their permissions to the limits and gather way more information than they need to operate. Have you installed a game that has access to your contacts with no apparent purpose? Uninstall. Keep it clean, if it’s not necessary, don’t allow it.
4. Install Privacy-Protection Apps
Apps like Privacy Pro and Little Snitch can be used to identify and block trackers. They can tell you which ones are accessing your phone and which of your apps is giving up your personal information free of charge. Privacy Pro, available in the Apple Store, will automatically block tracking malware, but it only works with the iOS platform.
Another app we like is LittleSnitch. Also written for macOS, LittleSnitch is a firewall that provides visibility into who your mobile apps connect to and what information they send them.
Protecting your privacy online might seem like a difficult and hard process. It is, but don’t be discouraged. Laws like the General Data Protection Regulation continue to gain traction in favor of the people’s right to privacy. That means users like you will slowly be able to step up and make trespassers accountable!
At the moment, look for fair players in the market and use applications that have clear and complete privacy policies. A good indicator is when app vendors -like us!- apply their GDPR compliance to their whole user-base, and not just to European users. Demand a better standard and help push it forward.