Today, our lives are almost entirely digital. Our phones are rarely more than an arm's length away, and we have come to rely on them for so much. We use them to look up places to eat, do our jobs, learn, watch TV, talk with friends, and so much more.
For most of us, the level of convenience these devices provide is impossible to resist, which is why smartphones have become so widely used. However, many of us don't realize that by using our phones for so much, we are often making considerable sacrifices when it comes to our privacy.
This term – privacy – is tossed around a lot in debates about the pros and cons of our digital world, with most people agreeing that these technologies have made it more difficult than ever to keep our lives private.
So, what does this mean for the average person? Not having a phone is not an option for many people, so it's essential to understand what's at stake, what the risks are, and what you can do to protect your privacy.
Here is everything you need to know about privacy on a cell phone:
Privacy is being left alone. It's pretty much that simple. We value it because, as people, we're all living in our own little worlds, and we want to be able to have the choice as to who we let into those worlds.
Digital privacy is no different, except it has to do with our digital lives, the ones that take place on our phones, tablets, and computers.
In this sense, when we talk about digital privacy, what we're talking about is data. Everything we do in the digital world – from messaging and video calling to ordering food and making reservations – gets recorded somewhere, usually by the service we're using. Our digital lives leave footprints as we live them.
The question then becomes: whose data is it?
The information contained in that data is about our lives, so it logically follows that it belongs to us. However, since it's collected by the various companies and organizations that run the services we use, they often claim it. Because all of these digital technologies are so new, few laws or regulations exist to outline the rules of the game. This is why digital privacy is such a hot-button issue in today's world.
In addition, privacy is also closely related to security. By keeping our digital lives private, i.e., by limiting who has access to it, we're also keeping ourselves protected from the many people out there who want to get hold of our data for various malicious reasons.
Part of the reason privacy is such an issue today is that it is not the default. Instead, most companies that collect data on you while using your phone, tablet, or computer do so pretty much automatically. If they give you the chance to make your experience more private, you almost always have to make this choice proactively.
Companies that collect data get away with this because they make you agree to their "terms of service" before you use their product. This is the giant document that no one ever reads when signing up for a new service or downloading a new app. We all automatically scroll down to the bottom and click "I agree."
When we do this, we agree to whatever policy that company has in place about data. So, if their policy is to collect it and sell it to third parties (more on this later), then that's what's going to happen.
In theory, there is a choice here. If you disagree with the company's data policies, then you don't have to download and use that app or sign up for that service. However, there are some dubious practices at play, and many people argue that things should be the opposite: data privacy should be the norm and should only be sacrificed when people choose to do so.
At the moment, there is no correct answer, but due to this approach, our digital lives are considerably less private than they could be if we were to deal with this issue differently.
In a word: money.
The data that we produce says so much about our lives – our likes, dislikes, interests, jobs, financial situation, habits, and much more. This information is extremely valuable to advertisers. They can use it to understand you better, allowing them to create marketing messages more tailored to you, meaning they will be more effective.
More privacy is bad for business, and large corporations have tremendous influence over the government. This should raise some questions about why the privacy laws are the way that they are.
Even without getting into conspiracy theories, data collection, even to an average person, sounds an awful lot like surveillance. These companies are effectively tracking you and your activities with the end goal of producing better advertisements.
For the most part, this data is anonymous, meaning it's not explicitly tied to you. It's not like there is a file on a server somewhere with your name on it that includes a detailed log of everything you've ever done on the internet. It's more general than that. Instead, computers use the data collected on you to place you into groups. They rely more on device identifiers, such as your computer's IP address, to guess that it's you. If you share a device with someone or let someone else use your device, the data that comes out of it will be interpreted as if it were coming from just one person.
Most tech companies argue this is enough privacy, and for many people, doing things this way isn't a big deal. The argument goes, "I am not doing anything wrong, so what difference does it make if they have my data."
However, not everyone agrees with this point of view. The counter-argument is that while governments might not be using our data for surveillance now, the very fact that it exists means they someday could. There are several examples from history where governments have used the information they held on citizens to suppress ideas and oppress certain groups. From this point of view, the fact that all this data is out there and relatively accessible is simply irresponsible.
This is currently an ongoing debate, and it's difficult to tell where we will go. Yet, it's crucial to have a solid grasp of the relevant issues to make informed decisions.
To demonstrate just how precarious our cell phone privacy is and how it is so often synonymous with security, here are several ways in which it can be invaded:
Malware is a type of software designed to harm your devices. The word comes from "malicious software."
Typically, it gets onto your computer because you allow it to get there, usually by clicking on some suspicious link. Hackers and other cybercriminals use a tactic called phishing to make this happen.
Essentially, they send you messages that look like they are from legitimate places, such as your bank, Amazon, your friend, etc., hoping that you'll click the link. If you do, there's not much you can do to stop the file from getting onto your computer.
Once the malware has been downloaded, your privacy has been sacrificed. It's typically designed to get into your files and find valuable information: bank account numbers, credit card numbers, passwords, messages, etc.
One particular type of malware that does this even more aggressively is spyware. As the name suggests, once it gets onto your device, it will spy on your activity and then send that data to someone who is more than just curious about your life. Usually, they're after passwords, account numbers, and other identifiers.
Fortunately, if you are paying attention, you can usually prevent this type of software from making it onto your computer.
Nothing says privacy invasion like the term "identity theft." When this happens, someone can, quite literally, become you. They steal your Social Security number or some other form of identification and then can use this information to do things as if they were you.
Typically, this means withdrawing large sums of money from your bank account or opening credit cards in your name so that they can make charges without ever having to worry about paying anything back.
Having your identity stolen is potentially the worst thing that can happen in our digital lives. If you find out too late, you could lose lots of money and have all sorts of other troubles. For example, if someone opens a credit card in your name and spends a lot of money, that may factor into your credit score, and sometimes changing these things can be next to impossible.
In general, the less private your phone (and other devices) is, the greater the risk that you will have your identity stolen. This alone is a solid argument for making sure your phone is as private as possible.
One of the reasons our phones are as useful as they are is that they come equipped with an internal GPS, allowing us to do turn-by-turn navigation and find out where the nearest coffee shop is.
However, the trade-off here is that you are telling your cell phone company, as well as whatever other service you might be using, exactly where you are at any given moment. Even if you turn the GPS off, it is still possible for someone to find your location. If you are connected to cell service, your location can be determined.
For most people, this isn't a major worry. However, privacy advocates argue that allowing this to happen is dangerous as this information could easily fall into the wrong hands. At the moment, it is against US law for the government to force phone companies to turn over location information about an individual. Yet, it's possible, and some people find this troubling.
Cookies are a tool used by web browsers to help make it easier for you to use the web. They are essentially packets of stored information. When you visit a website for the first time, cookies are installed on your device. The next time you visit that site, the browser doesn't have to look for as much information, speeding things up and making your experience more streamlined.
When used for this purpose, cookies are relatively helpful. However, there are many different types of cookies. Some are designed to track your web activity and report back to either the website or a third party, usually for advertising.
At the moment, in the US, there is no regulation surrounding cookies. So, when you go to a website, you don't know what information is being collected about you. The European Union passed a law a few years back that requires sites to tell people what type of cookies they use and give them the chance to choose which cookies are collected.
So, if you visit a site in the US that has a strong presence in Europe, you may come across these options. However, these are currently not required by US law, which certainly raises some questions concerning our privacy.
Our data is valuable, and there are many people out there willing to pay top dollar for it. A digital service collects information on you and then sells it to a third party. These third parties, often called data brokers, compile profiles and other metrics to sell to companies looking to advertise on the web.
Companies must disclose whether or not they are doing this, and they must also give you a chance to opt out. Many have vowed never to do this. For example, Google does not sell data to third parties, despite the many rumors that it does. Samsung, however, does.
When your data gets sold to a third party, it's made available to pretty much everyone. You have no way of knowing who can see it. Again, this data should be anonymous, but the fact that it's out there, accessible to who knows who is a stark reminder of just how little privacy we sometimes have when we use our phones.
Speaking in much less technical terms, someone can invade your privacy on your phone simply by looking at it. Many of us get notifications to our home screens, and depending on how you have things set up, anyone might be able to read these.
Many people use apps and other features to note personal information, such as passwords, and most of the apps we use remember our login information.
This means that if we don't take the necessary steps to secure our phones, prying eyes can very quickly see into our lives. Luckily, this part of phone privacy is relatively easy to protect.
As you can see, there are several ways in which you can sacrifice your privacy through your cell phone.
Fortunately, however, there are also a lot of things you can do to safeguard your privacy. There's an argument to be made that more options should be made available to us, but until then, here are all the things you can do to keep your digital life as private as possible:
The most basic thing you can do to keep your phone private is to lock it using a PIN or a password. Doing this might sound simple, but almost two-thirds of the population doesn't secure their phone with a password. This is pretty much the digital equivalent of leaving the front door of your house unlocked.
Your phone password does a bit more to protect you, though. Internally, before any significant change can happen to your phone, you must enter your password. This means that if you do get infected with malware, a password can keep that program from doing too much damage.
A passcode also means that no nosy people can take your phone and find out what you're up to. So, remember to lock your phone! When you do, pick something that's not "1234," and that's not easy to guess. Think birthdays, anniversaries, your address, etc. Pick something more unique, and your life will remain more private as a result.
The apps we use on our phones are a huge source of data collection. However, any halfway decent app won't start collecting data on you as soon as you download it. Some will do this, but these are usually spam. Instead, when you open the app and go to use its features, it will ask you to grant it permission to access things such as your camera, photo gallery, location, etc.
Some apps need these permissions to work.
For example, if you don't grant Instagram access to your photo gallery, you won't be able to do much with the app. However, some apps ask for permissions they don't need, usually because they want to collect your data and sell it to someone else.
Therefore, it's wise to regularly check in on what permissions you've granted to each app. You can do this in your phone's settings.
There should be a folder labeled "permissions." Go through and uncheck anything you don't feel comfortable with. If doing so means you can't use a specific app, then you'll have to decide what's more important: the app or your privacy.
Another thing to look for is whether or not the app refreshes in the background when you're not actively using it. If it does, then there is a decent chance it's collecting data on you, so you may want to consider turning this off. Doing so can also help improve your device's battery life.
If you have a Google account, as most people do, then one thing you can do is turn off ad personalization. Doing so will stop Google from showing you ads it thinks you will like more, information it gets by collecting and analyzing the data from your phone (or any other device).
Of course, this won't stop you from seeing ads, and it also won't stop Google from showing you ads, but at least what you see won't be derived from your personal information. In reality, all this does is give the illusion of more privacy, but sometimes that's enough.
Apps are what make our phones so convenient, but they can also be a danger. Poorly or maliciously designed apps can be rather intrusive by collecting data without you knowing it. Typically, these spam-like apps come from third-party sources, so the best thing you can do is always stick to the App Store and Google Play.
However, know that there is a difference. Since Android is an open-sourced software, anyone can design an app and offer it on Google Play. On the other hand, Apple screens all the apps it allows on the App Store, which adds an extra layer of security.
If you have an iPhone, the best way to maximize your cell phone privacy is only to download apps from the App store. For all other users, definitely still stick to the Google Play store, but go one step further and make sure you're downloading apps from trustworthy sources. Just because it's available doesn't always mean it's safe.
As we mentioned earlier, you can actually be the biggest threat to your privacy by falling for a phishing scheme. Remember to follow the "when in doubt, don't click" principle. All this means is that if you are suspicious of a link sent to you via email or text message, follow that instinct and don't click on it.
To confirm your suspicions, double-check the sender's address or number and compare it to messages you know came from that person or company. Also, look for minor inconsistencies such as spelling errors or awkward phrasing. Hackers tend to be rather lazy. If you're still unsure, think about doing a quick search for the message you've received to see if anyone else has reported it as spam.
As a general rule, legitimate companies don't usually ask you to hand over your personal information, such as login details, address, credit card information, etc. If you receive a link saying you must do this, be suspicious and don't click.
Should your phone get lost or stolen, whoever ends up with it could potentially access your entire life. Yes, your passcode should protect you against this to an extent, but if an experienced techie took your phone, then they may be able to find a way around this.
A good solution is to make sure you have remote wiping software installed. These apps allow you to delete all the contents on your phone even if you don't have your phone with you. This might sound a bit scary at first, but if the other option is turning over your private life to a complete strange, then this is worth it.
Another thing you can do to protect your privacy if your device winds up in the wrong hands is to use encryption software. This will make specific files impossible to access and read without entering a separate password that, ideally, only you know.
To do this, you will need to download a separate app, such as Solid Encryption, which costs $3 per month. However, if you store lots of personal information on your phone, this small price tag will be well worth it.
To make sure your phone is as private and secure as possible, make sure you keep its software current. No piece of software is ever perfect, and hackers are always trying to exploit weaknesses.
Software companies respond to this by coming out with updates that improve the security of their programs. If you don't install these updates, then you're putting yourself at unnecessary risk and putting your privacy in jeopardy.
Update your apps regularly, and when you get a notification that it's time to update your phone's software, don't ignore it. Just do it!
Since malware and other privacy-invading programs can come from anywhere, it's a good idea to install some anti-virus software on your phone. These programs will routinely check your device for anything suspicious and will help you remove things that are potential security or privacy threats.
They will also tell you when you are entering a website that is not secure, alert you of potential spam/phishing attempts, and stop anything from making changes to your device without your explicit permission.
Bit Defender and Norton Security are two good options for Android users, and Avast is an excellent option for both Android and iPhones, though there are many others out there that you can use to keep yourself safe.
While public WiFi is a major convenience, most people don't realize that it's also a significant risk. These networks are not very secure, and when you connect to them, other people connected to that network might be able to access and collect information on you.
To keep your phone as private as possible, avoid connecting to public WiFi networks, or be careful what you do while you're on them.
Consider using a virtual private network (VPN) to keep yourself safe. These tools change your IP address, allowing you to browse as if you were in a different location. They are an excellent way to use the internet more privately and securely, though do be aware that they can sometimes slow down your connection.
Clearly, by depending so much on our phones, we are putting our personal privacy at risk. When we do this, we are also exposing ourselves to potential security threats.
However, this doesn't mean you should toss your phone away and avoid the internet altogether. Instead, use the information presented here to make smarter, wiser choices so that you can not only make your digital life more private but also safer and more fun.