The more app-connected we get, the more our anxiety levels tend to increase: Is our personal information compromised? What permissions did we accidentally give? Or—the worst— is my phone secretly listening to my private conversations???
The concerns are actually quite common, but the good news is that there’s much we can do to combat the feeling of being surveilled— which is why I’m on the Today Show this morning, outlining the absolute easiest things you can do to keep all your personal information totally buttoned up.
1. Check Permissions
Every time you install an app, it asks for access to parts of your phone’s system (for example, the microphone, your camera, your contact list, even the ability to track your location). Usually we just click YES YES YES, but often apps ask for more than they need, and we don’t have to oblige! Sure, the features of the app might be more limited, but you can be more in control.
Periodically checking them and then tweaking them is a good idea with a double benefit: If you reduce the amount of apps that are tapping things like your location and always running in the background, it will also help with your phone’s battery life.
How to turn off permissions:
If you’re an iPhone user… Go to Settings > Privacy > Location (for example) and then toggle any app that you don’t want having access to it.
If you’re an Android user… Go to Settings > Apps or Application Manager > Tap the App You Want to Update > Permissions
2. Clear Your Cookies
You know them as the little crumbs of data the browsers plant on your device to “remember you by.” It’s why a browser will keep you logged into a site you were on yesterday—or even last week, remember what was in your shopping cart, what you recently browsed and more. In other words, it’s a ton of personal information that can make you vulnerable to hackers. And that’s not all: Somethings cookies can get corrupted and start to take up lots of space on your phone. This is why, from time to time, it’s healthy to delete it all. (Just make a mental note that you’ll have to log into the sites you frequent again, so be sure you have all your passwords.)
How to clear your browser cookies:
If you’re an iPhone user… Go to Settings > Safari > Advanced > Clear Website Data
If you’re an Android user… Open your browser and tap Settings > Scroll down the privacy settings and tap Clear Cache > Clear All Cookie and Data
Keep in mind that the first two tips are all about trading privacy for convenience AKA making these changes is going to limit your experience of the internet is some small way, but will keep your information safer.
3. Use a Browser That Doesn’t Collect Your Personal Information
Google isn’t the only game in town when it comes to a search engine—although it’s definitely the most full-featured. Still, they are collecting tons of data about what you search so that they can serve you targeted ads. And if you’re an Android user, you’re using Chrome to browse the web, which collects a ton of information about your browsing history, all used to target ads to you.
Before you freak out, there are other search engines and browsers that don’t follow these practices. For example, Safari actually made a lot of changes last summer to push back on data collection within its browser. And DuckDuckGo is a browser and search engine in one, available for iPhone and Android, that does not collect your info or follow your browsing history. (It even has a cool feature where they will show you a rating of how exposed your privacy is on any given site that you visit—eye opening to say the least.)
4. Set a Strong Password for Your Phone
You’d think this would be obvious, but you’d be wrong: According to a recent study, a whopping 52% of people do not password-protect their mobile devices. Crazy!! Your phone is basically the keys to your castle: Just getting into your email alone allows someone to change all your passwords and lock you out of things like banking and credit card sites within minutes.
Follow these steps: 1. Set up a password. 2. If you’re phone is stolen, make sure “Find My Phone” is set up and that you know how to wipe it clean remotely before someone has time to hack into it.
How to Set Up a Password:
If you’re an iPhone user… Go to Settings > FaceID & Passcode > Turn Passcode On > Enter a Six-Digit Passcode, Repeat and Confirm
If you’re an Android user… It depends on the phone, but in most cases, you’ll tap Settings > Security > Screen Lock
To Set Up Find Your Phone:
If you’re an iPhone user… Go to Settings > Your Name > iCloud > Find My iPhone
If you’re an Android user…Find My Device (previously called Device Manager), offers the easiest way to track an Android phone. Download the free app, then access the service from any browser by visiting google.com/android/find.
5. Turn Off Voice Assistants
Lately, everyone has that story where they were talking about something they needed to buy while phones were closed and then, within a day, they’re getting ads about it?
Before you blame your Amazon Alexa, listen up: Many people balk at having a device like Alexa in their home that’s listening for commands, but they don’t realize their phone has that exact same ability. It’s listening for it’s command— “OK, Google” or “Hey Siri”—but sometimes it’s collecting information from other trigger words or phrases.
It’s unclear but possible that they are using this information to serve you relevant ads and that apps like Facebook and Instagram have access to it.
Google now has a website where you can actually just how much Google has on you—including all the audio snippets it has recorded.
How to Turn Off Voice Assistants:
If you’re an iPhone user… Go to Settings > General > Siri > Allow “Hey Siri”
(And if you want to turn off Facebook Microphone, go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone to see all the apps that have access to your microphone and turn those off.)
If you’re an Android user… Go to Settings > Devices > Google Assistant
6. Avoid Public Wifi As Much As Possible
If you work in a coffee shop all day or spend a lot of time traveling—living in hotels or airports—this is critical: You cannot bank or use a credit card in those public spaces and on insecure Wifi without making yourself incredibly vulnerable. There are actually devices that hackers can buy for about $100 and spoof the Wifi. This means that instead of calling it Starbucks Wifi, it will appear as Wifi Starbucks. If you log into the wrong one, boom. You’re being watched. A good work-around is using a VPN (Virtual Private Network, $50 a year for three devices) which is a lot like putting an invisibility cloak on when you’re online. Your personal info, browsing history and more will all be kept completely private and a hacker in a coffee shop would not be able to see you at all or lift any data. No ads can track you and your information is private and safe.
What’s your biggest privacy concern? Let me know in the comments!