All the Ways in Which Your Smartphone Can Track You and How to Put an End to It
A friend and I had the strangest discussion: He had been at a jewelry shop, looking for something for his wife. And, never one to browse among such shops' glittery merchandise, he had hoped to make a quick stop, pick up the best option his wallet could agree with and head out.
In fact, this friend couldn’t care less about jewelry and to the best of his knowledge, he told me, he had never searched for anything glittery online.
Yet, just as he reached home, he started getting bombarded with ads -- featuring jewelry! Not only were the ads of jewelry, but they were actually the same type of ring he had been inquiring about; they came from Facebook, news sites and blogs.
Wherever he went, there were the ads again (more or less) promoting that same kind of ring. So, was his phone eavesdropping on his jewelry jaunt? Observers abound in their theories as to how this phenomenon might be possible. Others say it’s just paranoia fueled by sheer happenstance.
But, how many times have you had the same experience? YouTube is filled with videos on how smartphones apparently track their users even when those phones have been turned off. So, what gives? And just how is our data being collected and used? Is there really evidence to suggest that you might be giving your phone and the apps within it more information than you know?
How phones collect and use data
In fact, our phones collect a lot of data in the name of providing a better user experience. A plethora of sensors are used, including:
- Compass: Also known as Magnetometer, your phone’s compass can track your location relative to the Earth’s magnetic field.
GPS: The Global Positioning System uses signals from various satellites to establish the user's location. Many phones can accept signals, as well, from different services, including Russia's GLONASS, Europe's Galileo and China's BeiDou.
Gyroscope: This device determines how a phone is positioned in three-dimensional space.
Accelerometer: This sensor reports how fast your phone is moving in a linear pattern.
Here’s a complete list of the sensors that your phone has. The four listed above are how your smartphone primarily collects location information.
Depending on the type of phone you have, its OS (operating system) will use the information collected from these sensors in different ways. Both types of phones allow you to manage location. With an Android, location services can be toggled on and off from the main drop-down menu. In iOS devices, location can be turned on/off from privacy > location services.
However, this is far from everything that may happen to you regarding your data. Often, a smartphone will busily send location data even though the user has turned it off. As it turns out, your location data is probably still being collected by Google, which is obviously a grave concern. Google has been caught trying to track users even though they thought they had turned off their location services.
Fortunately, there are ways to ensure your privacy is protected at all times. While it's desirable to understand how privacy in the smartphone world works and to cultivate smart habits, sometimes we are strapped for time and can’t be bothered with observing every nuance. If this sounds like you, here are the apps that can defend your privacy from prying eyes ...
DuckDuckGo private browser: Browsing the internet is just about the scariest thing, say privacy enthusiasts. Websites keep a log of your activity, and the search engine you use does the same. What's more, if you are operating on a nonsecure network, then good luck to you. DuckDuckGo is a browser that carefully works to ensure your privacy.
Not only does the browser not store any information locally, but the app goes out of its way to delete data that other sites might be holding about you. Furthermore, it can even block out ad networks trying to track you and will compel sites to use encrypted networks wherever possible.
Privacy Badger: For power users, Privacy Badger presents an awesome way to monitor what apps are snooping on you. As of now, the app is available only for Firefox on Android; however, it’s worth it.
By now, you’ve probably heard that the websites you visit are tracking you. This is usually done via social buttons on web pages. Privacy Badger can identify buttons that are snooping on you, and stop them in their tracks. Furthermore, it will also replace these buttons with its own, safer versions.
Privacy Badger also brings a rather cool cookie management system to the table, with which it can smartly disable the undesirable sites tracking you, while leaving the desirable ones operational. The app presents any privacy dangers you may be facing, in color coded sliders. Green means the site’s not tracking/has been disabled; yellow means third-party tracking is necessary for user experience; and red means content on a site has been disabled.
Disconnect: Disconnect is best thought of as a jack-of-all-trades privacy app, which offers every feature you could ask for under one header. In fact, Google went so far as to remove Disconnect from Playstore without giving an adequate explanation (cue the X-Files theme). The app has a powerful malvertising and tracker listener that can tell you exactly what scripts are attempting to access your data, and block them. The information is presented in an easy-to-read table.
The app also comes with a VPN that can encrypt your data online. But apps like NordVPN or ExpressVPN offer better features and generally speaking are more powerful.
CoverMe: Billed as a private texting, calling and vault app, CoverMe offers comprehensive features to help you keep all your data and communications securely encrypted. CoverMe’s private vault uses AES-128, AES-256 and RSA encryption to ensure all data remains secure.
Sending any messages or calling someone through CoverMe is covered by its encryption technology, as well. Messages can be instructed to self-destruct once they're read or following a specified time period. While this feature is no doubt impressive, CoverMe does not guarantee whether a message will go boom, as that depends a lot on the email client and security features the receiver is using.
While the apps mentioned above will no doubt help you keep your privacy intact, learning as much as you can about privacy rules and the policies of the technologies you use is still your best defense against being caught off guard.
All too often, we accept privacy policies without giving them a second thought, only to realize later that we have willingly signed away our freedom. Smartphones do come with features that can help you turn off tracking completely if you want to. You just have to dig a little deeper.