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Why Your Phone Is Burning A Privacy Hole In Your Back Pocket

16 August 2017 16:07

The announcement of the new-look Nokia 3310 brought back some nostalgic memories for most of us earlier this year -- and the realisation of just how quickly mobile phones have developed. But now, some of the world's most popular apps are threatening our security.

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Gone are the days of using mobile phones solely for calls, messages and playing Snake. In the modern world, mobile phones are so much more than that. From browsing the web and online banking, to instantly posting pictures and thoughts for the world to see -- our old communication buddy is now a vital instrument for many of our day-to-day activities. 

Take a look at the new Snapchat feature in the news, and you'll find a prime example of just how big an anti-personal tool our mobile phones have become. Any user of the app now has the ability to have their location appear to friends and strangers -- and at all times. But that's just the latest in a line of increasingly scary privacy threats. Our privacy and personal data have now become more vulnerable than ever.

Mobile and online service providers have the ability to store our personal information -- even when we're not aware of it. So, to give you a helping hand in safety, here are four ways in which your mobile companion might just be burning a privacy hole in your back pocket, and what you can do to combat them:

Your every location is being stored

There are common and legitimate reasons for your phone sharing your location from time to time - such as when checking the weather, looking for locations or even geo-tagging your photos. This being said, the fact that your phone has the ability to store information on all of the places you have visited is a tad scary. Both Google and Apple claim that storing this information makes it easier to offer personalised services and better recommendations on the locations and products that are significant to you. Checking your most frequent locations on both Android and iPhones can be done with relative ease:

  • Android: Launch Google Maps - Open the main menu - Click on 'Your timeline'
  • iPhone: Go to 'settings' - 'Privacy' - 'Location services' - Click 'Frequent Locations'

With Android, you will be able to see a list and map of all the places you've visited over the past day, week, month and even further. Even the distance covered and the method of transport can be seen. Apple, on the other hand, stores the places that you have recently been to and where you have visited most frequently.

  • How to combat this:

With IOS, you can simply tap 'Clear History' and then switch off 'Frequent Locations'. You can erase Google Map data for a specific day by opening the menu in the top right corner of your timeline and selecting 'Delete Day'. You can also delete all of the stored data by selecting 'Settings' and clicking on 'Delete all Location History'.

Your personal interests might not be so personal

When browsing the web with your phone, you can often be met with advertisements which seem to be relevant to what you have just been searching for. This reason for this is that both Apple and Google are able to build an advertising profile based specifically on your browsing habits. What's more, personal data such as your age, gender, parental status, income, frequent locations are also used by the tech giants. This data is then shared with IOS and Android applications so they can cater their ads towards you - creating more clicks and a better success rate for online advertisers. For some of us, this can be a handy way of finding products and services with ease based on our preferences. For others, this can seem like a slight privacy breach on a simple daily activity.

  • How to combat this:

On Android, you can stop personalised ads by finding the 'Google Settings' app (on some phones you can select Google within the standard 'Settings' app). Then, select 'Ads' and 'Opt out of Ads Personalisation', followed by 'Reset Advertising ID' in order to clear your profile. With IOS, you can visit 'Settings' followed by 'Privacy' and 'Advertising', then click 'Limit Ad Tracking' and 'Reset Advertising Identifier'.

You can also turn off location-based advertising by visiting 'Privacy', 'Location Services' and 'System Services'. Changing these setting does not block advertising completely, but it will prevent them from being able to track you.

A quick 'snap' can reveal your location

Not all of us are selfie-obsessed, but most of us tend to take the odd picture and upload them onto social media from time to time. What you might not realise is that all digital cameras record Exchangeable Image File data (otherwise known as EXIF), which stores a number of details, such as when the picture was taken, the ISO speed and the aperture. But your phone goes even further than this, it also saves personal data such as your whereabouts of when the picture was taken. For the mobile user, this makes it easier to browse the photos that you have taken in the same location, making it more efficient by tagging them automatically. This is all good to have, but the privacy concern comes when you share these pictures online. A quick snap or selfie can show a stranger, or even a potential burglar, where you live or currently are.

  • How to combat this:

Facebook, Instagram and some other photo-sharing services automatically strip EXIF data from the pictures you upload. Companies such as Google and Flickr however, can leak your location. For IOS, you can go to 'Settings', 'Privacy', 'Location Services', 'Camera' and then select 'Never' for 'Allow Location Access'. With Android, the easiest way is to visit 'Settings', 'Location' and select 'Off' (note: this can also prevent other apps from knowing where you are).

Your choice of WiFi network could be visible

If (like me) you're a sucker for saving data and connecting to the host of free Wi-Fi hotspots available nowadays, you might be vulnerable to potential attacks, especially if you're using Android. With Android, your phone stores and share the name of the wireless networks that you have connected to, in order to make it easier to reconnect to in the future. However, this also makes it easier for hackers to create a fake Wi-Fi hotspot that can obtain this information and use it to locate exactly where you have been - from your home address all the way to shops and restaurants. As a result, you are left vulnerable to potential man-in-the-middle attacks, which can steal your data when you connect to one of the regular networks.

  • How to combat this:

The first step you can take is to not leave your Wi-Fi turned on at all times, as this causes your phone to constantly scan for networks that you've used before (whilst also leaking the details of the network). As well as this, you can also install an application called 'Wi-Fi Privacy Police' (which is completely free), which stops your phone from sending out the names of Wi-Fi hotspots, meaning that potential hackers are not able to see which you've used and where. The app also stops you from unknowingly connecting to dubious access points that pretend to be genuine ones.

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