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Smartphones: A Privacy Nightmare in 8 Ways

TLDR: Smartphones pose privacy risks through geo-tracking, malicious apps, Wi-Fi tracking, limited antivirus software, camera and microphone eavesdropping, lack of security patches, and potential backdoors. Stay informed and take precautions to protect your data and privacy while using these ubiquitous devices.

Smartphones have become our go-to devices for communication, entertainment, and even virtual reality experiences. However, these omnipresent companions, which we keep with us 24/7, pose a serious threat to our privacy.

This guide explores how your smartphone can spy on you and offers ways to make it safer, short of switching it off altogether.


    Smartphones can locate themselves via cell towers or integrated GPS chips, enabling features like tracking distances during running and map navigation. However, this geolocation information can be used by law enforcement and apps to track users and build profiles for phishing attacks.

    Even with GPS disabled, phones can be located using other sensors or by tracking connected cell towers. The best defense is to install apps only from legitimate sources like Google Play or Apple App stores.

    Malicious Apps

      Expanding smartphone functionality through apps can be risky, as some may access more information than required. Agreeing to app permissions without suspicion can lead to privacy breaches.

      It’s recommended to download apps only from reputable sources like the Google Play Store, but even these can contain malicious apps. Apple users are not immune, with malware-infected apps slipping into the official store in the past.

      The best solution is to use open-source apps, where the source code is freely available for security experts and the community to check for bugs or hidden backdoors.

      Be vigilant. Check app permissions carefully before installing them on your device.

      Wi-Fi Tracking

      Retailers often offer free Wi-Fi to shoppers to keep them connected indoors where cellular connections falter. However, this convenience comes at the cost of privacy.

      US department store Nordstrom faced backlash when it was revealed they were using Euclid Analytics to track shoppers via free Wi-Fi, determining which departments they visited and how long they spent there.

      Although Nordstrom reportedly stopped using Euclid after the controversy, Forbes reports that over 100 other retailers still use their service.

      Public Wi-Fi is inherently dangerous as other devices on the network can try to access yours. Using the best VPN or a dedicated mobile VPN app is crucial when out and about.

      Alternatively, disable Wi-Fi on your mobile device unless you’re at home or work, and access the internet via 4G or 5G instead.

      Limited Antivirus Software

      While most people accept the need for antivirus software on their Windows or Mac PC, fewer smartphone users adopt this protection despite the sensitive information their devices contain and access, such as mobile banking.

      The Google Play Store isn’t always helpful, with fake antivirus apps disguised as malware. Apple has taken a stronger stance, removing many fake antivirus or “antivirus scanning” apps from their store, but some “cleaner” apps remain that may remove old files but not necessarily protect against malware.

      To stay protected on the go, install the best Android antivirus software or the best iPhone antivirus apps on your device.

      Prevention is better than cure. The best adblockers can prevent most malicious links from loading. AdBlock Plus offers its own browser for Android, and iPhone users can benefit from the built-in AdBlock Plus extension for Safari.

      Stay vigilant. Protect your privacy and security while enjoying the convenience of your smartphone.

      Your Camera Could Be Watching You

      Smartphone cameras are a great convenience, but they also pose a security risk as they can be activated and used to spy on the owner. Notorious hacker and author Kevin Mitnick explains that this can be done by installing software on the phone via physical access or remote exploitation.

      Google tried to fix this issue by making it impossible for Android devices to start camera recording without displaying a preview on screen, but some malware can shrink this preview to just one pixel, making it almost invisible.

      To stay safe, only install apps from the Google Play store and be cautious about granting camera permissions. The same advice applies to iPhone users: avoid jailbreaking your phone and remove unnecessary apps.

      Microphone Eavesdropping

      Every smartphone has a microphone, which is another security risk. While the main concern may be eavesdropping on private conversations, microphones can also be used for data collection.

      For example, the company Alphonso uses smartphone mics to record ambient noise and create a database of TV shows that a phone’s owner has watched, which is then sold to advertisers.

      Voice-activated services like Google Assistant and Siri have made the problem worse, as the relevant apps need to be constantly listening. The only safe way to avoid eavesdropping by voice assistants is to deactivate them altogether in your device settings.

      Check individual app permissions and only enable microphone support if absolutely necessary.

      Lack of Security Patches

      While iOS users generally receive regular updates, there’s a lack of updates for Android devices, with many not running the latest version at any given time. This is due to a lack of support from both phone manufacturers and wireless carriers.

      According to Google’s Android Security Team, about half of devices in use at the end of 2016 had not received a platform security update in the previous year and should be considered insecure.

      Android users should check with their device manufacturer regularly to ensure they’re running the latest version. Android 13 should automatically download updates in the background.

      Apple users have an easier time, as the company has fewer devices to maintain. Upgrading to the latest iOS is a simple process.

      Always fully charge your device battery and back up all data before applying updates or security patches.

      Beware the Backdoor

      The concern over government backdoors into smartphones came to a head when the FBI demanded that Apple help circumvent an iPhone’s security in the wake of a terrorist attack in 2016. The issue was never resolved in court, as the FBI found another way to access the phone.

      In 2018, there were concerns that Chinese manufacturers Huawei and ZTE had engineered backdoors into their smartphones. This led US intelligence agencies to recommend against purchasing these devices, and in November 2022, the US banned Huawei and ZTE altogether.

      If a large cellphone manufacturer agreed to include a hardware or software backdoor in their products, it would be devastating for the privacy of millions worldwide.

      The only solution is to use a mobile device built on entirely “open source” principles, like the Librem 5 or the Linux-based PinePhone, but these come with their own challenges.

      Stay informed. Protect your privacy in the face of these smartphone security risks.


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