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Privacy, in this age, seems to be a flight of fancy. Even separating the awareness Edward Snowden raised of the level of government surveillance, we live in a connected world. Almost every action we take online can be reviewed by someone.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying there are times I’d rather not have my actions scrutinized. It might be as simple as trying to make sure a gift I’m buying doesn’t show up in my history. Or, I could be fact-checking a Breaking Bad episode.
The reality is that we have devices with GPS chips that have near-constant connections to the internet. Simply put, if you want to go on a crime spree, a smartphone is a poor companion.
What I will attempt to do in this article is go over some ways you can keep your Android or iOS device a little more safe from prying eyes.
Losing physical control of your device is obviously a gigantic problem. But it happens. If it does and the device is not secured a thief could have access to almost all your personal accounts and information. Therefore, the most basic security steps you can take is to enable a password lock and be able to track your device.
It also should be stated that if you are at all interested in privacy or security, do not root or jailbreak your phone. This will weaken your device’s security. That process often takes advantage of bugs in the system to gain elevated privileges, and who knows what pieces of code have been injected.
On an Android device, you can set this from the Security page under your device’s Settings. Also, you should download and install the Android Device Manager on your tablet or phone. If the device is lost you can go to the web and remotely erase the device. Also, if you have more than one Android device all hooked into the same Google account, you can install the app on all your devices and track and erase them from there.
You can also encrypt your Android device from the Security setting as well. This will encrypt accounts, settings, downloaded apps and their data and other files. You will need to enter a PIN to decrypt the device every time you power it on.
On an iOS device, you can set a Passcode under Passcode on the main Settings page. To enable Find my iPhone (or iPad), go to your iCloud settings on the device and turn Find my iPhone on. If your device is lost you can either go to iCloud or download the Find my iPhone app for your other iOS devices and track it from there.
One other nice thing with iOS is how it handles trusted computers. Every time you connect your iOS device to an untrusted computer you will need to accept a prompt on the device to trust this device. If your device is password-protected, you will need to enter it before accepting the trusted connection. This will stop miscreants from accessing your data if they get their hands on your device.
While it’s nice to be able track your phone if it goes missing, is also makes it easier for people to find you. Our cell phones have GPS chips and even without those, the cell towers can let the authorities know where we are. This article isn’t about how to go completely off the grid, but rather how to minimize what data apps broadcast about you.
When it comes to location services my general rule of thumb is to keep them enabled on a device level but turn them off on apps I don’t want enabled.
One nice thing about Android is when you install an app, it’s very clear what permissions – like location services – it will need. The downside is sometimes changing or revoking those permissions can be a pain.
There are two overall locations settings to an Android device. They are under Location on the main page of Settings. Tap there and go to Google Location Settings. There are two options: Location Reporting and Location History. Location Reporting lets any Google product (like Maps) turn store and use your device’s most recent location data in connection with your Google account. The second one allows Google to store a history of your location data. What I cannot find is an easy way to tell which apps are using Locations.
If you turn off the Location Reporting and History, apps like Maps and Android Device Manager will not work anymore. It’s your call if you want to keep them enabled.
iOS is a little better about handling this sort of thing. Under the Privacy settings, you will find Location Services. If you want, you can just shut down all location services from there. You will also be able to see all the apps that use Locations and can disable their access from there. Also, when you launch an app that uses Locations, it will ask your permission to use this data.
If you go to the bottom of the list and go to System Services, you will see Frequent Locations. This is where you can view areas you’ve visited and clear the history.
While I generally don’t mind if Apple (and to a certain degree Google) has device-level access to my locations, there are apps where I draw the line. For instance, while I’ll allow this level of access to a weather app, Facebook and Twitter are apps where I don’t want this information attached to my posts.
On iOS, this is easy to do. Just go to Locations, see what apps use this information and you can either tell it to never access Location or Always (some apps have a While Using this App setting).
On Android, you can view the permissions of each app on its page on Settings, but if you want to disable Location access for that specific app, you’ll have to launch the app and hope you can change the permissions there.
One area I do care about is keeping my search and browsing history private and hopefully un-trackable. Some of it’s just to prevent companies from monetizing my searches, but I also am working on writing some thriller-style fiction and the research for that story can yield some unique search results.
The Onion Router (TOR) is a great way to anonymize your browsing. According to their website: “Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.”
Simply put: TOR makes it hard for your internet activity to be tracked back to you. I first heard about it when Wired’s Evan Ratliff tried to vanish as part of an article he was researching.. Keep in mind, that TOR is not a 100 percent guarantee your browsing cannot be tracked back to you. However, for most of us, it’s good enough. What I have also found is that TOR is a great way around corporate and education firewalls. One thing to keep in mind, is that because of how your information is anonymized and hopped around the Internet, you will find that using TOR will be slower than a standard browser.
Privacy (and security) are constantly at odds with convenience. Trying to balance the two is a struggle. Because of my internet freelance work, when you Google my name a decent amount of the first page of results are links about me. I’m active on Gigaom, Twitter and my personal site. As a result, I tend to self-censor myself on social media. You can find out that I like Apple, the Red Sox and guitars, but not much else about me (hopefully).
I’m lucky too that I’m not someone who needs to hide my internet activities. There are reasons people need to, and I hope this post is helpful to those of you who want to increase your security and privacy.
Featured photo courtesy of Thinkstock user BernardaSV.