CREDO Tip: 3 Ways to Boost Your Privacy on an Android Phone

Illustration of a phone with a green lock in the screen and test next to it that says "3 Ways to Boost Your Privacy on an Android Phone"

If you want to protect your privacy, a good place to start is with your phone. It’s an open door to your life. The apps you install can potentially collect data and stream it to companies that use it to make money.

This is particularly true of Android phones. According to some studies, they collect 10 times more data than iPhones – and that’s just Google. The company that manufactured your phone and the apps you’ve installed on it may also gather and use your personal data for their own purposes.

A lot of this data collection may be harmless. But a lot of it is not. For example, news reports revealed earlier this year that an app called Twinning from PopSugar was leaking user selfies. And in January, security experts discovered that one of the world’s most popular weather apps was collecting an inordinate amount of data on users and subscribing some of them to paid services without permission.

Here are some steps you can take to protect your privacy and make informed decisions: 

  • First, only install apps from the official Google Play store. 
  • Second, review the permissions granted to the apps you’ve already installed. 
    • Open Settings, tap Apps or Application Manager (depending on your device), tap the app you want to review and then tap Permissions to see what data the app is accessing. If a calculator app is accessing your photo gallery, you should probably turn that permission off.

As a mobile carrier, CREDO makes protecting our members’ privacy one of our top priorities, and we have a long record of fighting for their privacy rights. That’s why we’d like to share three more ways you can protect the data on your Android device and hide your web activity. 

Use a VPN

A virtual private network is a good measure you can take to protect your privacy on your phone. A VPN provides a secure connection between you and the sites you visit and the apps you use. This is important because when you surf the internet using mobile data, your carrier can watch and gather information on every website you visit. ISPs do the same, and so does Google. Under the NSA’s sweeping secretive domestic spying program (with the help of AT&T), the government can also track your internet data. A VPN can do a good job of concealing your activity (and your location) from them.

After launching the VPN, it first encrypts all data before it leaves your phone. It then routes the data through the VPN server and from there to your online destination. In the site’s view, your data is coming from the VPN server, not you. VPNs hide your IP address from the sites and apps you use, and they hide the sites and apps you use from your carrier and your ISP.

For a relatively inexpensive fee, you can use a commercial VPN provider like NordVPN or Private Internet Access. Outline VPN allows you to set up your own VPN that you control – and it’s available for Android in the Google Play store.

Use a non-tracking search engine or browser

Even if you do use a VPN, Google can still monitor your activity in Chrome and when you use Google to search from your home screen. It will then add this activity to its detailed profile of you and may share that activity with third parties.

DuckDuckGo is a search engine that does not track you. According to the company, it does not store or sell your search history and does not keep a profile of you. Each time you use it, you are effectively a new person. DuckDuckGo does, however, serve you ads based on the search terms you use in each session.

Another good option for more private browsing is Firefox Focus, which blocks a range of common online trackers and ads and includes a neat one-click wipe function. Just click the button and your browsing history disappears.

Tor Browser is another good option to protect your privacy online. Built on Firefox code, Tor uses a special network to anonymize your internet activity while blocking trackers and utilizing multi-layered encryption. The company recently released a fully-supported Android app that you can check out here.

A quick note on settings in common internet browsers: Many browsers offer you the option to choose not to have your online activity tracked. You can turn on this privacy setting, but there is no law mandating that websites must respect your request, and most simply ignore it. You can learn more about “Do Not Track” from our allies at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Use a secure messaging app

Secure messaging apps make encryption very easy, they’re free and they provide high-level privacy for all your communications, including texting, photo sharing, voice and video calling. They don’t just help with privacy and security of your data, they also help if you’re concerned with intrusive tracking and annoying ads in your social media messaging apps.

Secure messaging technology is complex. An algorithm encrypts messages you send so they can’t be read while in transit, then decrypts them at the receiver’s end. Using a secure messaging app is simple. Just install it on your phone and you can communicate securely with anyone else who has the same app. The messages aren’t stored on company servers and can’t be mined by advertisers or read by eavesdroppers – not by hackers, service providers or the government. Even the app makers can’t access your messages.

Signal is one of the better secure messaging apps available today. While it’s not perfect (you must provide a phone number when signing up), it’s probably better than any of its competitors. Signal set the standard for secure messaging protocols and end-to-end encryption that other apps now use. The app and service are free and open-source and allow you to text/SMS, voice and video chat, and share documents and photos. Signal includes a timer for self-destructing messages, and the company doesn’t store data or metadata. You can learn how to install and use Signal for Android from our friends at EFF.

(Regarding the apps mentioned above: the views and values of the app creators are their own and are not endorsed by CREDO Mobile. Before downloading any app, confirm that it meets your personal standards for corporate ethics and protection of privacy. And whenever you download any Android app, do it from the official Google Play store.)