Data is the newest form of online currency. Companies around the world will pay top dollar for databases filled with user information. They want to know who we are, what products we buy, who we’re friends with, where we get our morning coffee, and so on. This has created a massive market for capturing user data as quietly and efficiently as possible. And there’s no better way to do that than to take advantage of smartphone users.
Since mobile phones go everywhere we go, they can collect an insane amount of data about our location and habits. Apps and websites make note of this and often sell the information to advertisers, all without breaking any laws. If the #DeleteFacebook movement got your attention, you should know there are lots more companies that are almost as bad. Read below for the best ways to remain anonymous and stop apps from tracking your activity on your phone.
- 1 Start with a Good VPN
- 2 Install a Privacy-Aware Browser
- 3 Stop Tracking by Avoiding Bad Apps
- 4 Change Your Privacy Habits
- 5 Conclusion
Start with a Good VPN
Nothing secures your data better than a good VPN. Virtual private networks encrypt everything that leaves your device, making it impossible for third parties to see what you’re downloading or find out which websites you visit. This builds a strong foundation of anonymity, and it’s often all you need to stop tracking efforts.
Picking the best mobile VPN isn’t an easy task. We’ve provided a few recommendations below to help get you started. Each one is fast, secure, easy to use, and perfect for staying safe online.
1. ExpressVPN – Fastest VPN
ExpressVPN is a fast and friendly VPN that’s perfect for just about everyone. The service runs an incredibly diverse network that covers 94 countries around the globe, each one working to keep your data safe with 256-bit AES encryption, a zero-logging policy on traffic, DNS requests, and IP addresses, and both DNS leak protection and an automatic kill switch. You’re always safe and sound with ExpressVPN on the job!
2. NordVPN – Powerful Protection
NordVPN operates a massive network of servers, currently over 3,300 in 59 different countries. The company uses this to your advantage by providing exclusive features such as double encryption, DDoS protection, and onion over VPN. All the basic privacy features are there, too, including 256-bit AES encryption, DNS leak protection, and an automatic kill switch. NordVPN also has the most thorough zero-logging policy in the business, making it perfect for privacy-conscious individuals.
3. CyberGhost – Strong Security
CyberGhost builds a solid foundation of security by combining all of the best VPN features into a single convenient package. A subscription gets you instant access to 256-bit AES encryption and a zero-logging policy on traffic, time stamps, and IP addresses to keep you safe from the moment you connect. DNS leak protection and an automatic kill switch also provide a solid layer of privacy by ensuring your identity is never exposed.
Install a Privacy-Aware Browser
Most of our online time is spent staring at a browser window. This makes them a prime target for companies looking to track our movements or log personal data. By choosing the best privacy browser for your device, you can cut off many of these anti-privacy measures before they even begin.
Firefox Focus (Android, iOS)
Firefox Focus is a streamlined version of the mobile Firefox browser made by Mozilla. The tagline sums everything up quite well: “Browse like no one’s watching.” Firefox Focus blocks a wide range of trackers and ads by default, stopping web apps from tracking you and making your mobile browsing faster and more private without any effort on your part.
The unique feature in Firefox Focus is the ability to clear your browser history with just one tap. Typed URLs, visited pages, cached content, and other info can be deleted by touching the icon on the browser bar. Think of it like using incognito mode or private tabs open at all times. Most sites won’t be able to track your movements at all.
- Download Firefox Focus for Android via Google Play.
- Download Firefox Focus for iOS via the app store.
Brave Browser (iOS, Android)
The Brave Browser was custom-built around the concepts of online privacy and security. It comes with built-in ad blocking, an installed and activated HTTPS Everywhere plug-in, script blocking, and tracking prevention, all easily accessible from the main interface. This keeps you safe from basic data mining attempts, but it also makes Brave a fast and efficient browser for everyday use.
Along with its smart ad blocking features, Brave also delivers phishing and malware protection along with browser fingerprinting protection. These more dangerous forms of tracking are often used when ad blockers and script killers are installed, as they can still get around your efforts to stay secure. Brave makes sure that never happens, however.
Ghostery (Android, iOS)
Ghostery started out as a script blocking extension for PC browsers, but it quickly grew into something more powerful. The Ghostery team now maintains a simple but strong privacy-focused mobile browser that helps block ads and remove tracking scripts no matter who’s trying to take your data. All you have to do is download and start surfing, Ghostery takes care of the rest.
Tor Browsers (iOS, Android)
The Tor Browser will forever be the king of all security-conscious browsers. Tor utilizes onion routing via the Tor network to encrypt all data leaving the device. Packets are then sent through the network anonymously, helping you to stay secure on multiple fronts. Tor Browsers also come with built-in ad blocking and script removing plug-ins to prevent data harvesting attempts by third parties. You’ll notice a significant amount of slowdown when using Tor, but it’s worth it for the incredible boost in privacy.
Orfox for Android is maintained by the Tor Browser team and shares a fair amount of code with its PC brother. You get the same script blocking, ad killing, onion routing features as before, only now you can stay incredibly secure on your Android smartphone or tablet.
There’s no official version of the Tor Browser for iOS devices, but there is the unofficial Onion Browser. Grab it to utilize onion routing via the Tor network on your iPhone and iPad. Don’t worry, it’s safe to use.
- Android: Download the Orbot Proxy first (required), then the Orfox Browser via Google Play.
- iOS: Download the Onion Browser via the iTunes App Store.
Stop Tracking by Avoiding Bad Apps
Facebook can’t track you if you never use their service. You may think you’re missing out on fun conversations by not joining the club, but in reality you’re just keeping your identity and your activity secure. Avoid the following services known to track information, then replace them with better alternatives.
Websites and Apps to Avoid
The services below are extremely popular. They also have a bad reputation for tracking users through their websites and apps. If at all possible, avoid every item on this list.
- Any free webmail service – Gmail, Lycos Mail, QQMail, Yahoo! Mail, Outlook Mail, and others. All track your activity no matter what device you’re on.
- Facebook – Collects a massive amount of data on every interaction you have with the site, your friends, and even services outside of Facebook.
- Google – Tracks every search and ties it to your account.
- Instagram – Known to track and watch use activity without explicit permission.
- LinkedIn – Tracks your activity and doesn’t let you control what happens to your data.
- Skype – Keeps logs of contacts and has been caught listening in to private conversations.
- YouTube – Keeps a record of every search query and video you’ve watched.
Use These Services Instead
Free (libre) and open-source software usually has a stronger focus on privacy than any commercial app. The reasoning is simple: open-source projects aren’t usually designed to make a profit, whereas commercial ones are. Without the financial incentive in place, a lot of libre software avoid tracking issues altogether.
Instead of giving your data away to data-hoarding companies, try open-source alternatives. Diaspora is a social networking site similar to Facebook that keeps privacy as a top-tier focus. Mastodon aims to take a page from Twitter’s book without tracking you in the process. If there’s a popular service there’s likely a more secure alternative, so don’t hesitate to shop around and find something better than what you’re currently using.
To find more alternatives to popular apps, start with PrivacyTools.io. You can also check out Secured.fyi for more information on who you can trust and who to avoid.
Change Your Privacy Habits
It’s tempting to blame all privacy issues on eager corporations or greedy governments, but at the end of the day the weakest link in your online privacy is yourself. How you use your smart device can put you in more danger than a dozen sneaky apps. By tightening up on your personal patterns, you can gain a surprising amount of anonymity and security.
Manage App Permissions
Android devices running newer versions of the operating system have a wonderful feature that parcels out app permissions on a per-request basis. If you download a calendar program, for example, you’ll be able to purchase and install it right away. As soon as you run it Android notifies you of any permissions the app is trying to access. You can then allow or deny each permission on an individual basis. You’ll also see this warning whenever an app tries to access something new that’s protected by Android’s privacy policies.
This per-app permissions gating can be a huge boon to your smartphone’s privacy. Some apps need access to features to work, such as your camera utilizing device storage or a messaging app requiring the ability to use SMS. Others are blatant attempts at stealing your data. Why on Earth would a stupid game about bouncing frogs need to make phone calls, read your message history, or access your contents? Deny those requests right away, no questions asked.
If you accidentally accepted a permissions request, or if you want to edit permissions of existing apps, simply open up your Android settings page by tapping the gear icon, then choose Apps, followed by App Permissions. This lets you go through and toggle settings for every piece of software installed on your phone.
iOS owners won’t be able to use the same app permission requests like Android users can. However, if you use an iPhone or iPad device, the operating system blocks many of these illicit attempts automatically.
Switch Search Engines
Search engines are the second biggest collectors of personal data, next only to social media outlets. Every query you enter, either by typing or using voice commands, is logged and associated with your account. Google has famously showcased some of the intimate details it knows about its users. If you went for a walk this afternoon with a phone in your pocket, Google probably knows about it.
The best way to avoid this tracking issue is to stop using search engines that monitor your information. The most famous example of this is DuckDuckGo. This search engine has apps for mobile devices as well as a straightforward search page available in any browser. By using DuckDuckGo, you can make web searches without worrying about anyone tracking your activities.
Stop Giving Out Information
Got a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter account? They’re tracking your every move, you know. Each post you make about a delicious dinner or a funny dog you saw in the park carries a lot of information about yourself and your devices. One simple post tells social media services where you are, what you like, and, based on who comments and likes the post, who you interact with. That builds an incredibly detailed web of your real world relationships, meaning you can kiss any hope of privacy goodbye.
Here’s one simple trick to stop these services from tracking you: don’t give them any information. Don’t create posts, don’t upload photos, don’t share videos about your afternoon. It’s surprising how little you’ll miss these surface level interactions, and it’s also surprising how much data you’ll keep out of social media company’s hands.
Never Use Free VPNs
Facebook caught a lot of bad press for rolling out its free VPN service that openly recorded and tracked user information. Some software and browsers offer free built-in VPNs, too, and if you search for virtual private networks on any mobile marketplace, the first results you’ll see are free services.
Here’s the problem with free VPNs: they don’t really protect your privacy. Instead, they track your activity across the web, cataloguing every site you visit and download link you click on. They can store your e-mails and track your shopping habits, and all of that data can be saved and sold to the highest bidder. Free VPNs have no incentive to keep your information safe. They exist to profit off of laziness, nothing more.
Paid VPNs are exactly the opposite. These services have an active incentive to keep your data secure. Even if it’s a low-cost subscription, the fact that you’re paying for a VPN makes all the difference in the world. If you value your privacy, go with a reliable paid service.
Stopping apps from tracking your location and your online activity takes a bit of patience and a lot of effort. By avoiding bad practices and slowly incorporating more security-conscious apps into your routine, you can stop companies from knowing every detail about your life and keep your smartphone secure.