Protect Your Privacy From the Apps on Your Phone

Mobile apps have access to more info than you might think. Use these settings to limit that data collection.

Hand holding phone with apps with different eye icons on them Illustration: Tim LaPalme/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

In some ways, the apps on my phone know more about me than my partner does. Pocket knows the topics that interest me and the last article I read. Calm knows the last time I tried to practice mindfulness. Amazon knows when I’m likely to restock my supply of bath bombs. And the Samsung Health app, like period tracker apps, knows the last time I had my period and when I should expect the next one.

Are those mobile apps clairvoyant? Of course not; they’re designed to collect information and detect patterns in my usage. That’s what makes them handy. But it’s also the main way most of them make money—by sharing those details with other companies that use them for targeting advertising.

In fact, apps often overreach, gathering information that has nothing to do with their features or functionality. In 2018, security software company Symantec downloaded and analyzed the top 100 free apps on the app stores of Apple and Google and found that 39 percent of iOS apps and 89 percent of Android apps request what the company calls “risky permissions."

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That may include requests to track your location, access your phone’s camera, record audio using your phone’s mic, and review your call log and text messages.

There may be good reason for an app developer to request such permissions. After all, a maps app wouldn’t be very useful if it couldn’t pinpoint your location and monitor local traffic patterns. But why does a flashlight app need to trace your movements?

And do Facebook and Instagram truly need access to all your photos and every last name on your contact list? 

Those are good questions to ask yourself before you agree to the terms of service. But there are ways to revise certain app settings afterward, too.

“Each app asks for different permissions,” says Bill Budington, a senior staff technologist at the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “And each app is often very permissions-greedy.” 

That’s because there’s a $14 billion market for personal info harvested from smartphones, according to market analysis firm Grand View Research. Data brokers buy and sell this information for targeted advertising. It sometimes ends up in the hands of government agencies, law enforcement officials, and private investigators, too.

Apple and Google both provide ways to limit such data collection by any app downloaded onto a device powered by an iOS or Android operating system. If you haven’t already reviewed the permissions requested by the apps on your phone, now’s a great time to do so.

Here’s what you need to know.

Delete Apps You No Longer Use

You know those apps on your phone that you haven’t touched in months? Getting rid of them not only saves space but also keeps them from continually collecting data on you.

Before you go jettisoning them en masse, though, go online and delete any accounts with the company behind the app. Simply ditching the Foursquare app, for example, doesn’t automatically sever your ties to the company.

Think Twice Before You Download a New App

When installing an app on your phone, it pays to be extra-cautious—just like you would be with software on your computer. There’s no way to know for sure if an app was created mainly to harvest data—or, worse, to distribute malware that could be used to steal log-ins, passwords, and financial account info—but generally speaking, you’re better off using the Google Play Store than an unfamiliar third-party site.

(iPhone owners have no choice but to use Apple’s App Store.)

Apple and Google both require app developers to publish easily accessible privacy policies, and developers are legally bound by the terms in those policies under consumer protection laws, says Justin Brookman, CR’s director of technology policy.

If you don’t plan to use an app more than once, consider online options instead.

“Accessing services over a privacy-protecting browser like Brave or Firefox can help keep your info protected,” says the EFF’s Budington. “Rather than installing an app to locate your nearest ATM, use a browser that can ‘gate’ certain permissions and give access to only the information it needs to function.”

Limit App Permissions

In general, you should be wary any time an app wants to access your phone’s microphone, body sensors, health data, calendar, camera, contacts, location, built-in messaging, call functions, or storage. 

The settings below can help you counter some of those intrusions.

Just note that they’re not perfect. Android and iOS still collect information about users, as do wireless carriers. And even if you turn off the location tracking on your phone, marketers and others can monitor your whereabouts via WiFi, Bluetooth, and cellular signals.

For more information, consult CR’s Security Planner or one of our articles explaining the privacy settings for Facebook, Google, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Android Phones

To review the permissions for a specific app, go to Settings > Apps > [app name] > Permissions. In most cases, you can then toggle between Allow and Don’t Allow. 

For camera and microphone permissions, the options include “only while using the app,” “ask every time,” and “don’t allow.” Location tracking permissions include those three choices, plus “all the time,” which means an app can monitor your travels even when it’s not in use.

At the bottom of the page, you’ll also find an option to “Remove permissions and free up space.” Click on that one if you’d like to keep the app on your phone but revoke the app’s permissions, stop notifications, and delete temporary files. 

Android also lets you review permissions based on specific settings. It’s a good way to see which apps have access to your camera, for instance. When I gave it a try, I discovered that Uber wanted permission to use my camera even when it was not in use, so I switched it to “not allowed.”

To try it yourself, go to Settings > Privacy > Permission Manager > [permission type]. You can then select individual apps and revise the settings as you see fit.

iPhones

To review permissions for a specific app on your iPhone, go to Settings and scroll down until you find the list of apps on your phone. Click on the one you want to examine and you’ll see Apple’s list of the items the app developer has requested access to: the camera, your contacts, location services, etc.

In most cases, you simply toggle off to withdraw access.

For an app that may use the camera, you can opt to grant access to Selected Photos, All Photos, or None.

For one that uses location tracking, there are four options: Never, While Using the App, Always, or Ask the Next Time or When I Share.

Like Google, Apple allows you to review settings based on specific permissions (as in location tracking or contact list access).

To do that, go to Settings > Privacy > [permission type]. You will then see the apps that have requested access to that feature, and you can select the permissions level you prefer for each.

Apple offers two other handy tools on that Privacy page. 

The first lets you prevent apps from monitoring your use of other apps or services, so, for example, Facebook can’t see what you’re doing in the Google Maps or Uber app.

To turn off app tracking, go to Settings > Privacy > Tracking and then toggle off “Allow Apps to Request to Track.” If you see individual apps listed on that screen, you can also toggle the tracking off specifically for them.

Finally, you can get a privacy report with detailed information on apps that accessed your camera or location data and apps—or websites within the app—that contacted another domain (say, Google.com). 

To get the report, go to Settings > Privacy > App Privacy Report > Turn On App Privacy Report. Your iPhone will then start tracking app activity. To download the report, which shows you activity within the last seven days, go to Settings > Privacy > Record App Activity > “Save App Activity.” You can then open the file with any text editor, email it, AirDrop it to your Mac, or save it to your iPhone storage or iCloud Drive.

Smartphone Privacy Protection

A smartphone can be an incredibly useful device—but what do all those apps do with your information? On the “Consumer 101” TV show, a CR expert explains how you can protect your privacy.


Headshot of CR author Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

As a service journalist, my goal is to help people get the most out of their technology and other tools. Prior to joining CR, my work appeared online and in print for publications including The New York Times, Wirecutter, Lifehacker, Popular Mechanics, and PCWorld. When I'm not researching or writing, I'm playing video games with my family, testing new recipes, or chasing the puppy. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@melaniepinola).