7 data privacy tips for your phone from digital security experts

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Privacy and security on the internet

Keep your data safe from prying phone apps.


James Martin/CNET

Can you trust the apps on your phone? When it comes to data privacy, apps are notoriously tough to trust. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell at face value if an app is tracking you, even when you say stop, and no protection is foolproof in today’s world of ever-evolving technology. An app that behaves well today could turn into a bad actor tomorrow if the company behind the app is sold, changes its direction or winds up compromised because of a flaw

And there’s always the chance that the company offering you mobile service ends up being the victim of a data breach. That’s what happened to T-Mobile in August, leaking the names, driver’s license information and Social Security numbers of up to 48 million people — not all of them current customers. T-Mobile has suffered at least three other breaches since 2015, making this the latest in a series of events. 

While there isn’t much customers can do to protect their data from a carrier breach, it’s still important to take steps toward securing your own data, especially when it comes to the apps you use. There are ways to find and delete the data Google has saved about you, along with some new privacy settings in Android 12 and iOS 14 to stop apps from tracking you. And Apple also launched a “privacy nutrition label” in iOS 14, which allows you to see what kind of data an app collects before you download it.

Read more: Apple boosts your privacy in 4 new ways on iOS 15

But there’s more you can do to protect your data privacy and improve your smartphone security. We reached out to data privacy experts for their top tips to protect your personal data when using apps. Here are their seven suggestions.

1. Use a password manager

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Brett Pearce/CNET

The strongest passwords are random strings of characters. A series of letters, numbers and symbols in no particular order is less likely to be found in the dictionary and harder for a computer to crack with brute force. The downside is that these complex passwords are much harder to remember.

This is where a password manager app comes in handy. Password managers keep all your passwords in one encrypted and password-protected app. They also generate and remember strong passwords. While apps like Google Chrome and Samsung’s proprietary phone app will offer to save passwords for you, security experts always go to the password manager.

It’s also best to avoid using the same password for multiple accounts. If one account is compromised in a data breach, all the accounts are compromised. With a password manager, each one of your accounts can have a different, complex and hard-to-crack password. Some will even generate passwords for you.

We recommend one called Bitwarden, but there are many other password managers to choose from.

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James Martin/CNET

2. Use a VPN on public Wi-Fi

If you’re going to get on a public Wi-Fi network while on your phone instead of using your mobile data, experts suggest using a VPN. A virtual private network can keep your data from being snooped on by other people lurking on the same public network. They can also mask your data transmissions, avoid filtering and censorship on the internet and allow you to access a wider variety of content around the world. 

For our purposes, it can shield you from having to get on a free public network that others can use to gain access to your phone. When looking for a provider, it’s important to research the company to find out if it’s well-known and trustworthy. The Apple App Store and the Google Play Store have dozens of VPN apps that are free, but some have questionable practices, so take care.

Regardless of how frequently you plan to use a VPN, it’s important to read through the service agreement so you know what data might be collected and where it will be stored. See CNET’s guide to the best VPNs.

3. Be mindful of app permissions

One tip that almost all of the experts mentioned was double checking which permissions the app asks for. You should also ask yourself whether it makes sense for an app to ask for certain permissions. An app asking for access to data that isn’t relevant to its function is a major warning sign.

“[If] you’re downloading a simple app for a pocket calculator for instance and the app is requesting access to your contact list and location,” said Stephen Hart, CEO of Cardswitcher. “Why would a calculator need to see your contact list and location? Requests like that should ring some alarm bells.”

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Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

In addition to paying attention to permissions that you grant to an app, it’s also important to monitor how your phone behaves after you download it. Shlomie Liberow, a technical program manager and security guru at HackerOne, said that drastic changes in your device’s battery life are another red flag, since malicious apps can constantly run in the background. 

“If after installing an app, you notice your battery life decreasing faster than usual, that may be a tell-tale sign that the app is up to no good and is likely operating in the background,” Liberow said. 

Here’s how you can keep your app permissions in check.

4. Research the app or company

While you can’t tell at face value if an app has sinister motives, a quick Google search can supply more information. The experts suggested searching the name of the app and the phrase “data scandal” or “scam.” Hart said the results should tell you if the company has experienced any recent privacy or data leaks.

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“This search should also tell you if data breaches are a common occurrence at that company and, if they have experienced any, how they have responded to them,” Hart said. “If the company has been affected several times and done nothing to address the problem, steer clear of the app — it suggests that they aren’t taking the issue seriously.”

Joe Baker, an IT Systems Administrator at Anderson Technologies, said it’s wise to avoid an app if it’s the only one a developer has produced or if the developer was responsible for any other shady apps.

5. Limit social media exposure

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal put the popular social network in hot water. But even people who’ve freed themselves from Facebook’s siren call after the fallout (or never created a profile in the first place) might still be at risk for privacy invasion. If you appear on a friend or family member’s account, you’re still visible online. After those accounts are observed, companies can construct a “shadow profile” that details a person’s likes, dislikes, political leanings, religious beliefs and more.


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It’s wise to limit the amount of information you share on social media, regardless of what the site asks for on your profile. The more information you share, the more data that’s available to create advertisements for you. Only fill out the absolute minimum amount of information necessary. The more information is at risk in the event of a data breach.

“Smartphone apps are generally more ‘thorough’ when it comes to targeted advertising. There’s even concern among some about those programs accessing your phone’s microphone (presumably for more targeted advertising),”…

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