Tips on how to prevent your privacy from being snooped

Someone snoops in your phone or hacks your phone. What can go wrong?

Our smartphones carry so much personal information about us that in the wrong hands, someone can map out your social and family tree and discover enough other personal details, that they can ruin your life. From stealing your identity, to embarrassing you or causing you to lose your job, there are many negative implications from someone snooping your personal information.

When you hand over your phone to a friend who wants to search for a restaurant or make a call, how do you know that they won’t snoop through other things on your phone? It’s human nature to be curious, so you need to take precautions.

We have created a comprehensive and practical list of simple steps that you can use to minimize your chances from being snooped and your personal info being exposed to others.

Harden your phone to minimize your phone from being hacked. Most of these are one-time events that take very little time to set up.

1. Encrypt your device.

Encryption minimizes the chance of someone trying to access or copy the contents of your device without unlocking it. Some devices are already encrypted by default. While in others, you will need to enable encryption.  Remember to also encrypt any external storage (SD cards) that you may have mounted.

Use a strong password or PIN and change it once in a while. If your device or unlock app allows you to have PINs with more than 4 digits, do it! More digits make it harder for someone to crack your device. Never use biometrics (facial recognition or fingerprints) as your primary way to unlock your device. Besides from being forced to unlock your phones using biometrics by law enforcement without warrants, you have provided your partner or others with an easy way to unlock your phone without your permission. Use fingerprints or facial recognition as a secondary password to access key apps or finance related apps on your phone.

Install and use a security app to prevent malware, viruses, spyware etc. from being introduced to your device. Run regular scans of your device to search for any malicious apps or files.

Use passwords to open key apps such as financial or banking apps (Apple Pay, PayPal, etc). You may also want to password protect your social media or email apps. This may seem like an inconvenience, but you will get used to it in no time and it is worth it. Any app that allows you to conduct financial transactions should be protected. Biometric security can be used here to speed up the process of opening up apps.

It is very easy to fall prey to malicious apps masquerading as legit apps that steal your personal information. Even Google Play store can sometimes take a while to catch on to mischievous apps on their app store. Read our detailed blog article that provides practical tips to spot fake apps.  In summary, here are a couple of quick tips to spot fake apps. Clearly analyze the app icons to look for inconsistencies from the original icon. Look for grammar and spelling mistakes in the app descriptions. Read the app reviews. All or many positive reviews are a giveaway. Make sure that they provide a website link and a physical address for their offices. Closely analyze the link for extra words/characters that are out of place. Double check the physical address by visiting their main website’s contact us page. If ever in doubt, search for the company’s website from your browser and follow the app download links from there. You will even find many fake apps that look like WhatsApp on the app store. This is a big issue that impacts many legit apps.

Protect your personal information like you protect your money or as if your life depends on it!

1. Be very careful whom you provide your personal info to

Many apps and websites collect a lot of information on your personal preferences on many topics. This information is a gold mine to them as they treat you as their product and not a customer. Check the privacy settings in each of the apps and ensure you provide as little as information to them as possible. Equally important, where there is a way to control how long they can retain this info, set it for the minimum amount of time as possible.

It’s okay to use these free products/apps (gmail, search, maps, etc) as long as you are diligent in ensuring that your information is not being kept or used by them for purposes that you disagree with. You can still take control over what info you give up. While Google tracks a lot of info on you, it also allows you to manage what it stores on you. Check out your activities at https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity to view, manage and delete your activities. You are able to manage all activities tracked by all google apps including YouTube, voice searches, web and app searches.

Clear your google map visits and locations history. Google allows you to manage the history of all places you have ever visited. Go to your Google Maps Timeline to check out what is being stored about you and to delete your history.

Clear and manage Google Ad settings. Take control of what and how google advertises to you. You can’t stop it, but you can manage it to your liking. Go to Google’s ad settings https://adssettings.google.com where you can personalize your profile and personal preferences. These settings not only control the ads that you see on the search pages but even when you visit the 2 million plus websites where google ad network controls the ads.

Each time you visit websites (and social media sites), you are leaving traces of your visit and your behaviour (clicks, pages visited, products checked out, etc.) behind. This is done in 2 ways – the site may leave a cookie on your device which tracks a lot more than just visits OR there is tracking code within the website. Cookies are fairly dangerous and are easier to protect against. Check your browser’s settings to ensure that the website asks for your permission to leave a cookie on your device or to disable it altogether. Many websites located in Europe and other countries with strict privacy laws warn you of using cookies at the first visit giving you the chance to either accept their cookie or leaving their website.

If you are concerned about your activities on a website being tracked, you can enable the sending of “Do Not Track” request within your browser’s privacy settings (if supported by your browser) or disable JavaScript from loading. JavaScript is a piece of code that is downloaded to your device while visiting website to make your experience better and faster. Many websites also use this method to collect statistics on your visit to improve their websites by tracking which pages you like and visit more often. While disabling JavaScript will prevent your activities from tracked, it will also cause many website’s functionality to break. Cool website features like animations, auto loading of videos, image carousel and many other features will stop working as all of these features use JavaScript to function.

Use private or incognito web browsing for an increased level of privacy. These modes do not leave a trace of your web browsing history on your device.  Please remember that incognito browsing does not prevent your ISP or phone service provider from tracking which sites you visit. Furthermore, these private modes will still use cookies but these cookies are only stored while your session is active and are removed once the private session ends.

Back up your personal and confidential information on the cloud, on your computer or a USB key. Furthermore, perform regular backups of all content regularly onto your computer should something ever happen to your cloud backup or it is not accessible. If your device is ever searched by law enforcement without a warrant, there are different rules for searching the info on the cloud vs. locally stored device. For example, the US border officers can search your phone but not the information located on the cloud. Please stay abreast of the specific rules in your country/state/province.

Remember to use cloud services where your data is stored in servers in a country with very strict privacy laws where law enforcement needs to pass highest of suspicion tests before being granted the access to your personal data. At the moment of this writing, servers in the USA are not safe for backups as they are more easily snooped on. Servers in Canada, Sweden and many other European countries are more secure.

When your partner or friend wants to borrow your phone to do a search or visit a website, PIN the app. Many android phones allow you to PIN an app which only shows that one app and prevents a user from navigating to other apps. This is a good way to lock and control what your friend/partner sees. Only with a password, can you un-PIN apps. If you PIN a search app or web browser, you need to delete your search history, otherwise, it will be visible to others. You don’t want them seeing “best gifts for your bff” appear in your search and ruin the surprise.

Remove your vulnerable information and traces of your personal info while you navigate the World Wide Web and its many apps.

1. Delete your web history, form data and passwords often.

Your web browser and Google Search apps contain a lot of information on your historical patterns and other information that while make your life easier, they are a gold mine to others. Clear your web browser cache regularly to delete the web history, downloaded cache, form data and passwords. While it may seem convenient to use a browser’s built-in password manager or form manager, DO NOT use it. Use a third party app to manage your passwords that offer more features and benefits. Never store your financial information like credit cards in your form data or within browser’s storage.

Each time you open an email attachment or download a picture or meme from your internet, it is being saved in a separate folder called “Download”.  These are traces of your personal or secret info being stored on your device. If you want to keep these files, then store them in a secure and organized folder. Delete the rest of the files in the “Download” folder regularly.

Create folders or photo albums to store and organize your personal information.  Don’t leave your sensitive information in the standard folders to store your files, pictures and videos. That’s the first place a snooper will search your device. Use a File Explorer app from the many that are available as a default on an android phone or a third party app for iOS. Keep these folders outside of the standard folder structure. For example, create a photo album “Old pics” and place it in a folder called “Temp”. Not only will this information be easier to find for you, but it will be harder to others to discover for without conducting an invasive search.

These are the folders where messaging apps typically leave pictures or other information that might be damaging to you. What you might find funny might not be interpreted the same way by others. Even your partner might not understand some of the dirty jokes shared by your friends. Similarly, clean your email of the same types of info.

Turn off location and Bluetooth services when not in use to minimize the information being handed over to search engines like Google. Google regularly tracks your whereabouts and will show you ads based on your location. While you may be fine with seeing ads, this information can also be used against you in other lawsuits, etc. Some retail stores and other places use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to track your movements while in their facilities. Turning off these services when not in use also helps to increase your battery life.

While some of these things may seem overwhelming, we ask you to keep 2 things in mind. As technology evolves, we leave more and more information behind for others to use against us.  There is too much that can go wrong and will go wrong if our personal information is in the wrong hands. The number of malicious methods used to deceive us increases with the amount of apps that we use and sites we visit. Second, as you start to implement these steps, they will become second nature to you. Furthermore, self-defence apps like Conseel automate many of the key steps mentioned here to make your life easier.

We have listed many practical tips but due to the many different devices in the market, we have not always provided detailed instructions on how to enable some of these tips on your device. Please conduct an internet search to get more information on how to enable specific security and privacy features. There is plenty of information available.

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Have we missed anything? Do you have suggestions on how to improve personal privacy and security? Leave us a note.