Smartphones have become ubiquitous, leading to a barrage of ways that they violate your privacy. While you can install privacy-focused apps to improve the situation, let’s be real: by using a smartphone, you give up pretty much all privacy.
Let’s see the major ways your smartphone is betraying your privacy.
1. Photo Location Metadata
Did you know that by default, every photo you take on Android and iOS has location information embedded inside it? This means that every single picture you take has the potential to reveal where you’ve been and where you often go.
Developer Felix Krause created a proof-of-concept app that showed how dangerous this is. Any app that you allow to access your photos can harvest locations from them. Using this, they can tell where you start and end trips, where you work, and more.
— Felix Krause (@KrauseFx) September 27, 2017
Geotagging photos is handy for remembering where you took them, but we’d say the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.
To disable this tagging on Android, open the Camera app. Tap the three-dot Menu button and choose Settings. Disable the Save location options here.
For iOS, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services. Select Camera from the list and choose Never to disable location tagging.
2. Secret Screen Recording
It’s a common fear that apps are using your phone’s microphone to record everything you say. But what about apps recording what’s on your screen?
Unfortunately, this mobile equivalent to keylogging is a reality.
In mid-2018, Alphr reported that security researchers found that many Android apps were sending screenshots and videos of users’ screens to third parties. On iOS, ZDNet discussed researchers who found code in the Uber app that allowed it to record people’s screens.
You can imagine the kind of harm this could cause. Lots of information shows on your phone’s screen every day that you’d rather not share with others. Private text conversations, embarrassing web searches, passwords, indecent photos, and similar could all be out in the open.
3. App Permissions
We’ve written before how app permissions can compromise your privacy. When apps want to use sensitive information like your location or microphone, you must grant permission first.
Both Android and iOS allow you to toggle individual permissions, which is great. But since apps can access that information for anything once you permit it, there’s no telling what privacy violations apps commit.
You might let an app use your microphone to record voice messages, but it’s secretly listening to the TV shows you watch to help advertisers build a profile around you. Or apps with access to your contacts could upload them to spam lists.
4. Browser Tracking
Your smartphone isn’t immune to the pervasive tracking that happens all over the web. Whenever you visit websites, they collect information about your location, browser, operating system, and similar. Tracking beacons and social media buttons keep an eye on you, no matter where you go.
And that doesn’t even include what your browser itself tracks. Since Chrome is from Google, it uses your browsing information to build a better advertising profile. And some of the most popular Android apps (that you shouldn’t install) are browsers that send information to third parties.
5. Sensors in Your Phone
Your phone contains a ton of sensors that measure physical information about the device. These include:
- The accelerometer, which can measure where your phone is pointing, how fast you’re moving, and your steps for fitness apps.
- Gyroscope, which tracks small motions. This is important for some games and panoramic photos.
- A magnetometer, which lets your phone know which way is north when using map or compass apps.
- GPS, which obviously lets your phone figure out where you are in the world.
- Other small sensors, like the proximity sensor to detect when your phone is by your ear, or the ambient light sensor for auto-brightness.
A variety of apps (and your device’s OS) can access these sensors for various purposes. As mentioned above with permissions, there’s no telling which apps log this information and use it against you. Using the accelerometer, apps can tell how often your phone sits still, or when you have it in your pocket.
It’s not just the data on your phone that’s up for grabs; it’s physical information about the phone itself.
6. Free Public Wi-Fi Networks
Free and open Wi-Fi networks are available almost everywhere. While they’re certainly convenient, we’ve talked before about the dangers of public Wi-Fi.
You can shield yourself from many of these by using a VPN, but they’re oftentimes blocked on these networks. If you use the Wi-Fi anyway because you don’t have a choice, you’re opening yourself up to privacy leaks (beyond the typical security risks).
Since the business you’re in set up the Wi-Fi network, it’s in control of it. This means that it could track every website you go on, build a profile on you, inject new ads, and more. You put a lot of trust in companies when you connect your device to their Wi-Fi—there’s no telling what data they collect.
7. Mobile Service Provider Tracking
We’ve talked about privacy violations from apps and your OS, but don’t forget about your wireless service provider, either. Companies like Verizon and AT&T can learn information about you based on how you use their services.
For example, which cell towers you connect to can reveal where you often go or where you are. Like your home ISP, your mobile provider also has access to your browsing through its mobile data.
Even worse, in 2016, Verizon was hit with a major fine for tracking customers with supercookies. It’s one issue when free services violate your privacy, but what about the service you’re paying a lot of cash for?
Smartphones Are a Privacy Nightmare
We’re not intending to whip you into a frenzy. Much of this tracking is done anonymously, and is part of using modern devices. However, staying aware of what your phone is capable of is wise. You should know what information apps, websites, the OS, and your service provider are collecting and what they do with it.