What You Need to Know About Mobile Phone Privacy

A Few Simple Actions Can Provide A Lot of Protection

I continually notice people doing some really foolish and naïve things with their phones that put their privacy and security at risk. Clearly, there are malicious people in the world (not the FBI or parents) who would like nothing more than to pilfer the contents of our phones or figure out when we’re not home. There are also feckless advertisers out there who seem bent on ruining our web browsing experience. So, it’s essential that we understand the security and privacy settings of our mobile devices. Below is a crash course.1 I’ve also put together a short security guide to walk you through all the steps.

If only...

If only…

Security Settings

  • Use a Passcode. 4 digits are good, 6 are better. (I do the math to prove this to you in the security guide). If your device doesn’t have a fingerprint access feature, you might feel that using a passcode is a hassle. Since getting hacked is a bigger hassle, try going with just 4 digits. You’ll find you quickly get used to it. Think of it like the lock on the front door of your house. If that’s not enough motivation, imagine leaving your unprotected phone in the stall of a public restroom. Oh, the humanity…
  • Location Settings. This is both a security and privacy concern. Ask yourself what apps (i.e. who) really needs to know where you are. And if you use the infamous “check in” feature of social apps, remember you’re telling both your friends and the bad guys exactly when you’re not home. Tucked away in the Privacy->Location Services screen on iPhones, all the way at the bottom is the Systems Services settings. You will want to understand and use the features here to protect yourself. See the guide for details.
  • Advertising Settings. Another security and privacy item. More on this specifically below, but left enabled, location-based advertising collects data on your activities and the places you frequent.
  • Be careful with WiFi. It’s not wise to let WiFi enabled at all times. It exposes you to unsecured WiFi networks in public places, which may be specifically crafted to snare you when you come into range. On iPhones, it’s a simple swipe up from the lock screen to toggle WiFi on/off.

Privacy

  • When privacy is the concern, controlling location information is critical, so I recommend turning OFF the following:
    • Settings->Privacy->Location Services->System Services->Diagnostics & Usage
    • Settings->Privacy->Location Services->System Services->Location Based iAds
    • Settings->Privacy->Location Services->System Services->Frequent Locations (see one creepy reason here)
  • There are a number of Safari settings regarding pop-ups and tracking info. I go through this step-by-step in the guide.
  • Not a phone setting per se, but posting geo-tagged2 photos on social media is really not a good idea until after you’ve arrived home. It’s fun to share these things in real time, I know, but my recommendation is to share things like vacation photos after vacation is over.  You can disable the Camera app from using your location info in Settings->Privacy->Location Services.  The Camera app is usually near the top of the list.

Good Hygiene

  • Stay current. Keep your phone software up to date. More often than not, the updates contain security fixes. When Apple release a new update to iOS, I generally wait about a week before updating my iPhone. Sometimes Apple does put out a stinker update, and news of it normally hits the Internet within hours, so by waiting a week I can avoid bricking my phone.
  • Think before you click. Web links received in text messages can be just as deadly as email attachments. As obvious as it sounds, if you don’t know where the text came from, don’t click the link! This is usually more of a problem on Android, but the rule is wise for any device.

Feeling Overwhelmed?

If you don’t want to waste a lot of time fiddling with settings and just want to get all this done quickly, I’ve put together a guide with screenshots that will walk you through the entire process in less than 5 minutes. You can get it below. Keep it around when for when you get a new phone, because you’ll probably have to tweak things again.

 


  1. I’ll be giving iPhone examples, but there are equivalents for most items on Android.

  2. Photos tagged with your location info.