Privacy features you probably didn’t realise your phone already has

Updated on Mar 07, 2022 03:48 PM IST

Smartphones now have a variety of built-in tools to help you protect data and reduce tracking by apps and web platforms

For representational purposes only. (REUTERS Photo)
For representational purposes only. (REUTERS Photo)

NEW DELHI: Security applications are what most users look for in order to lock down and protect data, and reduce tracking by apps and web platforms on smartphones. However, smartphone platforms now have a variety of built-in tools that can step in if you configure them correctly. The Apple iPhone has Private Relay and Hide My Email, for instance. Android phones have a privacy dashboard that gets you pointed in the right direction.

Beyond that, other phone makers are increasingly adding feature layers too. Samsung has options such as Secure Folder, Wi-Fi security and Knox encryption on Galaxy phones. OnePlus has included Private Safe with OxygenOS 12. Xiaomi phones give you the option to sandbox a second instance of an app, as well as app locks. These, if you set them up, can shield your data.

Apple iPhone: Guard against tracking pixels in mails, hiding IP and more

With iOS 14 and iOS 15, Apple now gives control over a bunch of functionalities to keep your data private and your identity hidden. It is quite relevant, at a time when data collection by apps and web platforms, often without explicit permission, is the norm. You may have heard of the app tracking controls called App Tracking Transparency, but the options go much beyond that.

You may not have realised this, but often, emails that you send include pixels that are inserted in the header, footer or body of emails that track your IP (internet protocol, your network location identifier on the internet) address and location as soon as the email loads on your phone. You will not see them and or know they are there. If you keep Mail Privacy Protection enabled (Settings > Mail > Privacy Protection), it’ll hide your real IP address, which means trackers will not be able to determine your location or link back to your other online activity.

This will only work with the Apple Mail app, and not third-party apps such as Gmail and Outlook (those may have their own options to prevent images from automatically loading).

The other privacy option is called Private Relay (Settings > iCloud), which assigns you a temporary IP address and all web traffic that exits your iPhone is encrypted and sent to two separate pathways. This may sound like a VPN (virtual private network), but isn’t in the truest sense, since your access location is not changed and neither do you have any manual options for the same.

Android phones: Privacy dashboard, access dots and permissions

Google’s Privacy Dashboard addition with Android 12 gives users a clearer view of what exactly apps are doing in your phone – when they have been accessing location, calendar, motion sensors, etc. You’ll be able to see something odd, which wasn’t possible earlier, and take corrective action to block access for individual apps. If your phone runs on Android 12, you’ll find this at - Settings > Privacy > Privacy Dashboard.

Depending on which Android phone you are using, there will be a dot or an indicator whenever any app accesses the phone’s camera or microphone, even if in the background. Swipe down from the top of the display to expand the notification, with details on which app needs that access. If you find any odd behaviour, the permissions can be revoked by navigating to the ‘app permission’ page from here.

Samsung: Securing your Wi-Fi traffic and multi-layer encryption

Samsung’s Galaxy phone line-up gives you an option called Secure Wi-Fi, which when enabled encrypts all outgoing internet traffic from your phone. Even more important, it blocks apps and websites from tracking you, though your mileage on that front will vary depending on how aggressive it is with the clampdown on trackers. This does not work on mobile data connections, that is 3G or 4G, which means there are still some gaps in the protection coverage.

One UI on Samsung’s Galaxy phones also includes the Secure Folder option, which as the name suggests, is a good way to add another authentication layer to your important documents, files and media, while also preventing any and all apps installed on the phone from accessing them.

This isn’t new, but Samsung’s Knox encryption now has a four-stage protection prowess. The security module is built from chips powering the phones, which means it can authenticate every module and component installed in the phone. Secondly, Knox claims that it’ll isolate data in case someone manages to break into your phone, while all data remains encrypted unless you authenticate your credentials. There is also a layer of protection that prevents access to any malware that may attempt to modify the software’s core functionality.

OnePlus: Put your data in a safe

OnePlus phones received a new option called Private Safe with the OxygenOS 12 update. You can put documents, images and videos, audio files, and pretty much any other piece of data you don’t want, on the phone to access. Remember, many apps must have at some stage asked for permission to access files in your phone’s local storage or gallery, and the safe blocks access for those files you’ve put inside. If you don’t want a payment app from accessing your personal photos or documents, this could be a good option.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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