Three tips for phone privacy

Imagine if a stranger walked up to you on the street and offered you delicious cookies for free, to find out what you’re up to. What would you do? That’s exactly the question we posed to people in Toronto in the premier episode of Mozilla’s new podcast series, IRL with Veronica Belmont. Here’s a clip:

If you would be bothered by someone following you around all day watching what you eat, what you read, where you go, how much you spend and so on, why aren’t you bothered about it online?

That’s our modern life conundrum.

Sometimes it’s convenient to share your information. Websites you visit will often collect data about you to better personalize your experiences with them. The information they gather through analytics might be used to make navigating their site easier or to show you more relevant offers. They also use cookies — small data files placed in your browsers — to remember language preferences or the contents in a shopping cart. On the surface, that all sounds helpful and fairly innocuous, but there’s more to it.

And what if you just don’t want — or need — to be collected, tracked, measured and served? What can you do about it?

Here are three ways you can be a better boss of your personal information.

Check what permission you have given apps and take charge of your phone privacy

Many of the apps on my Android work just fine without location permission turned on, yet most of these requested it. I turned off location for the apps that I don’t think need to know where I am at any time.

1. Turn off location services… if you don’t need them

“I was surprised to see how many companies were tracking my location through apps on my phone,” said Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, Chief Marketing Officer at Mozilla. “More companies need to get smart about the data they’re collecting by asking themselves, ‘Do we need this data to provide the value we’re trying to deliver, or are we casting a too-wide net by default, simply because we can?’

“It’s important for companies to realize that customer trust is on the line,” he said. “I’ve disabled location services on my phone, and I turn it on only when I need it.

There are times when having location turned on is useful, like when you’re mapping a route, tagging a location on social media or hailing a Lyft. But many apps and sites don’t need to know your location to function, yet they still request your location by default when you install them. Take a look under the hood, and turn off the ones you think don’t need to track your whereabouts.

2. Check all permissions

Tidy up your phone every season by checking under the hood to see what permissions you have unwittingly enabled. You might be surprised to find out your favorite game has access to your photos, or your bank has access to your contacts.

While you’re at it, delete unused apps and accounts. Your data might get sold when a service or app shuts down. If you don’t use it, close it.

3. Browse with more focus

One way to avoid trackers on your phone is to block them in their tracks, which is exactly what Firefox Focus does. Focus blocks ads with sneaky trackers that secretly collect your data, making it a great browser for phone privacy. Plus, you can wipe out your entire browsing session — passwords, history, cookies — in a single click. Bonus points: it’s super fast! Those trackers following you around actually drag your speed down.  Give it a try.

IRL with Veronica BelmontWant more real talk?

The fact is, online vs. offline is a false distinction. We only have one life, and we live it online and off. Dive into the disconnect in our new podcast series called IRL, because online life is real life.

Listen to the full first episode, All Your Data Are Belong to Us, when host Veronica Belmont talks with a private investigator, a data broker, a guy who claims his headphones secretly spied on him and more. What’s their take on your data privacy? Tune in and find out.

Find IRL on our Website, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

58 comments on “Three tips for phone privacy”

  1. BARRY BREADEN wrote on

    It would be very nice not to have to worry about the safety of my personal information

    1. Brando555 wrote on

      Unfortunately in this day and age, that would probably require living like a wanted fugitive.

  2. Mike wrote on

    Remember, “2-factor authentication” is also used to pinpoint a person to data. Companies like Google & FB gather loads of data from different sources, your phonenumber is the final nail in the coffin to pinpoint it to You.

    Naturally they market it as a more secure way to login, but in fact it is a double edged sword

    1. yvette flanagan wrote on

      I do not have a smart phone yet but it is on my list!!

    2. Tom wrote on

      That’s why don’t use your number as 2FA, use Authy or Google Authenticator

  3. Pena wrote on

    The question remains: Do the apps actually adhere to the permissions ? For example Facebook application uses a significant amount of resources even when supposedly inactive. And in the past many applications have been “caught” tracking location even without permissions. So if one app does it, why would the others be any different.
    Avoid unnecessary apps. You can get quite many things done with a Browser without apps.

  4. A. C. wrote on

    When you buy a home, are you then required to maintain a room for the real estate agent or the mortgage company to use when they need a room? To me, the requirements put forward by internet companies, software companies, etc. are just as intrusive. There is something to be said for being able to “own” a copy of software, which I then update as I determine I am willing to do so. The price for so much software easily support this. Software is not monetarily free.

  5. MC wrote on

    If you dont want to be spied on dont use a phone or computer. I believe Windows 10 is full of spyware and unless you turn it all off guess what? Phones track you where ever you are and that data is availiable to all sorts of investigative people. Dont get me started on Facebook and twitter etc. Use them at your peril.

    1. Matthew P Gismondi wrote on

      That’s fair, but what if it becomes so invasive because you figure out it’s happening even by those who have legal right to do so? Can you ask them to stop? Will they? But if you know it’s happening and you can see it and it prevents you from being able to work or even communicate with anyone (in other words, follow your advice) then good luck doing anything in this world. Try going a single day without a device while still trying to do your job and keep your schedule. And try making money without email or a phone number. You can’t even find pay phones anymore! This isn’t meant to be a rude or harsh comeback either, by the way. I just don’t think people realize how much we have come to rely on being connected to everyone through a screen of some sort or how impossible it is to do anything anonymously. Especially when the library blocks certain things like TAILS Linux download for being “adult content,” I assume just because it grants the ability to visit onion sites. Why else would you block an operating system, but then allow Facebook Messenger to show up with dirty pics in your messages that someone you don’t even know very well sent you? The point isn’t to criticize Facebook at all… just the difficulty in censoring anything using across-the-board rules that are immutable.

  6. charlesthomas cybulski wrote on

    THANK YOU >>>>>> MOZILLA FOR ALL YOU DO ! YOU ARE # 1

  7. Devil James wrote on

    I NEVER have Google Location Services on, yet this happens every time:

    Whenever I click on LOCATION in the system menu on my android,
    for a brief instant it shows Google Location on and then turns off.

    It reminds me of a rat that dashes behind a piece of furniture when it gets caught by surprise when you turn a light on.

  8. Tom Alciere wrote on

    Let’s see now, this person logs onto our site at various hours during the day, but the activity always abruptly stops just before prayer times in this person’s town. We can always confirm this pattern by an abrupt change when the clocks are changed for Daylight Saving Time, because Muslim prayer times are based on solar time, while most school and work schedules are based on the local, legal time. Let’s target this person with ads of interest to Muslims, and sell this personal information to anybody who wants a list of Muslims.

    1. Pichael wrote on

      This comment actually makes me think cookies are very much needed and should perhaps be mandatory because we desperately need those lists.

      Have you ever looked at a map and tried to find a none existent X?

      Well, then imagine the tough time those boys flying the drones would have without cookies.

  9. Deborah wrote on

    Please, be mindful of editing all your text before publishing it. The title ‘All your data ARE BELONG to us’ must be corrected to either ‘All your data BELONGS to us’ or ‘All your data IS OURS’. Data is a plural (singular, datum), but it is also a collective noun (like family), and thus it should be in the 3rd person singular form (-s). In addition, you cannot use Be (i.e. ‘are’) alongside an active tense form of a verb (i.e. ‘belong’).
    Of course, if you wanted to make a point on the fact that much of the data is hacked by 3rd parties, whose English is regularly poor, then I suggest italicization of the mistake, to purposefully draw attention to it.
    Other than that, excellent job, and well done! I am grateful for your contribution, information and tips, thus I wanted to help you improve it even more.

    1. M.J. Kelly wrote on

      Hi Deborah! Thanks for your feedback. (Collective noun talk, swoon!) I can see why you might think we’ve made an unintentional grammar mistake, however it was highly intentional. We based the title off of the all your base are belong to us internet meme that has produced some relevant and interesting turns.

      Thanks for commenting, and keep them coming. ~mjk

      1. JB wrote on

        Thanks for the clarification, I’m hesitant to suggest that the following might be an error lol but it seems as though the following might have been referencing Jascha as Chief Marketing Officer and not Office?:
        “Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, Chief Marketing Office at Mozilla.”

        1. M.J. Kelly wrote on

          Yes indeed! Thanks.

      2. Davin Skellington wrote on

        I was just about to make a comment shedding light on that likely possibility.

      3. Dee Rivers wrote on

        Um, intentional or unintentional, it sounds, well, ignorant. I guess I’m ignorant, though, for not knowing the connection to a meme. That said, “We based the title off of…” isn’t correct, and, to my understanding, ought to read “We based the title on …” .

        Thank you for all your excellent contributions.

    2. This guy wrote on

      It was intentional.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_your_base_are_belong_to_us

  10. asdf wrote on

    Funny that this site uses Google Analytics trackers to track visitors. You might even say that’s hipocrasy.

    1. Taxi Rob wrote on

      Actually it’s hypocrisy, jussayin.

  11. V. Hansen wrote on

    That cookie better be made of gold, or I don’t want any!

  12. Matthew P Gismondi wrote on

    The absolute worst part is not the fact that you’re being watched. The worst part is not knowing who it is that is watching. You know you have a judge, but you don’t know if you’re the plaintiff or defense. Imagine trying to make a case for yourself if you have no idea which one you are or what the case is even about. Do they play by the rules or are they using sneaky underhanded methods that the government would not stoop to? And also add previous real examples of how that surveillance has caused you harm, and also caused you to be too afraid to do anything about it. And after getting stuck in situations where the people or institutions you turned to actually turned against you and abused you again and again and again and again and again… Who do you turn to? God? How do I know He isn’t susceptible to a man in the middle attack? But then that’s another topic.

  13. Matthew P Gismondi wrote on

    Also, the “We all have one life and we live it online and off” argument sounds a lot like the “Well I’ve got nothing to hide so let them see” argument. And consider this: If you get hacked by bad bad people who are trying to hurt you, and this actually does happen sometimes or else we shouldn’t bother spending so much on security software, then do you want them to see your bank information? Credit card numbers? If you’ve got nothing to hide, would you be ok with that camera following you into the bathroom and being with you after you ate too many fresh peaches off the tree and got the runs and a lot of gas? What about sex? How can you even masturbate if you don’t know when that camera might be rolling or not? Do they see everything you do or just your browser history? I mean, you could really get some wrong ideas about someone if you didn’t have access to everything, but then if you did you’d probably make them go crazy. So honestly, it doesn’t seem like it’s really a good idea.

  14. N. O.Name wrote on

    The above is the safe way to use phone, computer even postal mail. Just had yahoo call a private number they should not have had to check on someones, account supposedly. Now yahoo has 2 numbers and is bother the people whom they were allegedly protecting. This was all under the guise of security, but it has become a harassment now, maybe criminal.

    1. Peter Simmons wrote on

      Yahoo are up to all manner of sly snide actions. I just noticed that my usual search Google, had changed to Yahoo search which is so crap and angled to Yahoo it’s worse than useless. I unticked it as a search in Firefox, and low and behold, next day and it’s grabbed the search again. I imagine it got installed alongside something else, certainly not chosen by me.

  15. Joyce Hanson wrote on

    I want to be able to watch days of lives.

  16. E Mink wrote on

    Unfortunately, there is NO privacy, and there hasn’t been since pretty much high speed internet came into play. Overall you can do things to keep your information more secure, and knock on wood, I have never been a victim of identity theft or data mining as far as I can tell, nor have my debit cards been compromised. But it still pays to make your devices more secure and to erase your browsing history when you are done. Browsers like Firefox Focus on the phone help with that. Also I recommend some sort of security software on ALL your devices.

  17. JOAN wrote on

    I am 82, and I do not use Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.
    I get close to 100 Emails a day, and must sort thru to get just MY messages.
    Simply, how can I stop or block unwanted Emails, etc.
    Sorry, but I did not see a quick answer in ALL the messages I had to go thru when I pressed the following Send.
    ” Firefox Focus for Android counts how many trackers it leaves in the dust. Send yourself a download link and watch the ad blocks rack up in real time.
    (entered Email address here) then pressed Send”

  18. mike in keywest wrote on

    Yes I have deleted a few apps on my iphone and turn off Location service as many on this comment post are correct!!! why would ANY app need access to my personal photos? also why would verison NEED to USE my iphone to check nearby store inventory?? so I only turn on Location service when I need it. I have noted that ALOT of my searches on my iphone REQUIRE that Location service be TURNED ON to use. (easier to TRACK you and WHERE you go)

  19. Taxi Rob wrote on

    You use Lyft? You’re worried about your privacy, but then support a Carl Icahn-related data mining venture that kills jobs? Are you worried about consumers having a free and open internet, or are you just cheapskates? One job-killing multinational corporation is better than another how exactly?

  20. Franz Kafka wrote on

    Anyone else out there old enough to remember when the net was of interest to intelligent people, before it became an interactive TV shopping channel?

  21. nia wrote on

    I would take free cookies and be followed as long as the person does my homework

  22. jimminy wrote on

    This should not show up on the first default page of Firefox with an actual cookie image, this is bait-and-switch. I thought it was a cookie giveaway, because there was an actual image of an edible cookie (which does indeed happen, just like on Donut Day in the USA.) I don’t want more info on internet cookies, and do not appreciate the bait-and-switch.

  23. Stevie Arbor wrote on

    HEAVY sigh….
    The details of MY LIFE are NO ONE elses’ business
    I did not fill out the profile on Gmail or Fb but i know they are tracking because they are offering me airline info and i just came home by plane….. And many other things, shopping for clothes online, supporting CREDO and CARE2 petitions….
    HEAVY sigh again….

  24. Dr. Robert M Strippy wrote on

    Sad to say, some cookies are essential. If you erase them all when you exit Firefox, unpleasant things happen. The most glaring example is that all your banks “forget” who you are and put you through the wringer when you try to sign on. They make you prove who you are and say they suspect you’re someone who’s trying to sign on illegitimately from a public computer, rather than your own. Your mail service similarly makes you get a verification password before it will let you in. Allowing these institutions to keep cookies on your machine is somewhat like letting banks keep records of your signature. In the Firefox settings, you have to allow cookies from third-person sites you visit and keep them until they expire. There doesn’t seem to be any way around it. They make the rules, and your only choice is whether to obey them or spend half an hour jumping through hoops every time you try to sign on.

  25. Some Poster! wrote on

    The internet doesn’t run without electricity, like water – electricity & life flow though disruptable so is the
    internet. When silicone valley runs cables to provide home entertainment, communication & power
    bussinesses they expect that it be a chance like that same flow of electric life, being disrupted. To say the
    internet is there for you is like saying – I’m there for the internet, who does the internet exist for – the few, the
    many all exeptional to the fact that one person doesn’t cost the world alone in Internet, the world alone is
    accosted, like the lives that make up life & a cost or lag in fact due too shortages and over demands more
    demand on electricity & internet may not make life flow. With life flow can be disrupted, look at water
    _disruptable_, so too is internet like yourself, your not it.
    Is it you internet!

  26. DRAGONS “N”LORDS wrote on

    Hey yo this actually made me think twice before giving my location!

  27. bRIAN wrote on

    Cookies are not healthy. Keep the cookies.

  28. Pete wrote on

    I just tried the Firefox browser for the first time in years and I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I could customize and how simple it looks. I was using Google Chrome and I was aware of how much background processes it uses and memory to load pages faster, but bothered me. You can easily know this by looking at Task Manager on Windows 10. Finding this article made me trust Mozilla even more and gets the everyday person.

  29. barry wrote on

    It’s funny how the third “tip” is just selling Mozilla’s browser

  30. Ibrahim Arnautovic wrote on

    It would be nice of you to xplain to elderly and beginers how to go about it.A simple guide video would be ok

  31. Marc Draco wrote on

    The problem is that the Internet and technology has moved far faster than the lawmakers have been able to.

    This has resulted in idiotic “cookie” laws enacted by the European government which hurt small websites (having to ask permission to use cookies for their intended use) and allowed the big players to carry on using more nefarious tracking techniques which are difficult or impossible to turn off.

    Google, for example, has in the past and continues to abuse its position as the primary search engine and provider of huge amounts of cheap technology – much of which it copied from other people. Android, as many know is a direct copy of Apples iOS. Google originally copied Blackberry on the very first Android phones but that changed as the iPhone exploded on the scene.

    The real price of this “cheap” technology is that Google uses us as a product.

    Facebook, Twitter too – we’re product.

    “OK, Google?” – our answer needs to be a resounding.

    NO, IT DAMN WELL ISN’T.

  32. jim wrote on

    wow thats a long way to go for a ad for Firefox Focus

  33. steve wrote on

    A few years ago I started reading through all the small print on my phone ( i was on a long train journey), I was amazed at all the permissions that were asked for, and granted unknowingly by me. I was giving permission for the app controller, without asking me, to switch on the phone, read and alter my contacts, send SMS messages and read replies. Also and more worringly I was giving them permission to switch on my camera and video + microphone.
    I was giving the app PROVIDER free permission to spy on me.
    Now Google and the biggies are arguing with governments about divulging user information but this app was nothing to do with them.
    This app i was allowing to spy on me was my electricity supplier’s app, so apparently innocent i didn’t even have a smart meter because i didn’t trust them, yet here was a company with no power to argue with government and i was giving them free entry to the entire contents of phone and free use of all it’s facilities when i think it is switched off and safe.
    I freaked and phoned around friends and family warning them and advising them to check their apps but was met with such a wall of apathy and disbelief that i finally gave up and sunk into a mire of negation thinking about the responses and not the problem.
    Of course i have nothing to hide and so nothing to fear, just took an anti-depressant and stop worrying.
    Other people may have or need a different response.

    I simply put it out as a story for those with paranoid tendencies, check what permission you are giving BEFORE you load an app onto your phone, tablet or computer.

    Bearing in mind the number of random tag ends of code in your average ‘professionals’ work, the potential for unintended consequences is also huge

  34. James Hamilton wrote on

    Is it that hard to write a program so that while I am not using my computer, probably 20 hours a day, the computer is randomly going to websites and looking for random information or products. Then once a day it erases all the cookies that were downloaded. Yes, a counter program could be employed to look for this, but how would that program know it wasn’t you. The program would randomly create people with different demographics and subjects like “fish anatomy” or “bicycle repair” or “smoking” or “talking turtles”. Yes, some search terms would not make sense, but that is the idea, such as some of the demographics of the random people searching would not make sense. That would be the 80-year-old who is looking for marathon running shoes with high heals. You say it would be simple to find the fake people and fake searches. Yes, until you have a few million people a day running this program 20 hours a day. As soon as the database becomes unreliable people will stop trying to search for junk. I think the term is “garbage in, garbage out.” Yes, those who make money using your data will make there own fake programs that will make you think that you are trying to sovle the problem of people making money on your data, but these will eventually found. I wonder if Mozilla would consider making a public program that we could use to create fake information or are they afraid that there would be a backlash that would hurt them.

  35. gary goodman wrote on

    You wanted corporate capitalism but NOW you complain of being a commodity to be bought and sold in pieces.
    Just kidding, kinda. That’s how capitalism works.

    We wanted SECURITY against those scary guys like Osama Bin Laden hiding in your closet so we granted broad surveillance rights to Govt to get those “bad guys”.

    One commenter says “good, if cookies could help the military target attack drones on people”. As if there’s no future risk of drones being used against Americans who are “politically incorrect” on either end of the spectrum.

    *We* are usually the indignant arrogant authors of what we later oppose and object.

    Comments here are dorky and amusing, now I’ve probably added to that dorkiness.

  36. A.M. Endrinal wrote on

    Personally, I am very careful in giving out important nformation about me; do you just give your social security numbe to just anybody? ….ofcourse not. Additionally,I keep a record of who I gave it to with phone numbers and reason why. I also warn them nicely to kindly be careful. Most of the time they are very nice and agreable to me about being careful.

    Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts.

  37. Chrissie wrote on

    I hate that our world has turned into basically similar to the “Person of Interest” TV show from a few years ago. I feel the “Plan” to control all of us has been in the works for several decades. There has been so much “wow” factor with the little rectangle box and the next several sizes up that we were and still are captured; then became and still mesmerized while huge data farms are collecting and collecting and etc. We hardly look up nor look around as to what is happening for real. The propaganda has little-by-little entered into our brains and have basically ended our critical thinking. Many have become sheep doing and saying things without knowing what they are saying or really doing because they no longer know how to think critically. Thank you moz://a for establishing a place to have some critical thinking. “I just hope we don’t get fooled again.”

  38. Margaret Fraser wrote on

    Although I do usually refuse access to location, refuse to allow passing of my details among companies etc, I have to admit that I don’t really care whether big companies want to waste their time finding out what websites I use, what I eat, read, spend, am interested in. Knowing these things doesn’t make them know ME, and they have zero chance of influencing my outlook and decisions, so why would I care. It’s irritating when I get pop-ups with ads from companies I use/am likely to use, but all ads are irritating, I’d get rid of the lot of them on websites if I could work out how to do it.
    Maybe I’m being naive, certainly I’m not at all computer-savvy. Is the main problem that hackers could access your data to steal your money?

  39. David Walters wrote on

    I gave up my cell phone when Snowden made his revelations. Haven’t missed it…not even one time.

  40. Laurel Schillke wrote on

    I dream of “fee for service”. Yes, internet access has a cost, as does operating a search engine. The economic model of funding from advertisers instead of true-cost-pricing /subscription seems increasingly to have had corrosive effects. I don’t recall being part of the group that made that choice. Radio and TV were prior technologies operating this way, and their drawbacks have become evident.

  41. Casey Crockett wrote on

    As long as they’re chocolate chip or snickerdoodle, yeah. Come on, I’m going across the street to get some coffee to go with these cookies, more than one cookie right? You have molasses cookie in there? Ooo, what about those marranitos (Mexican pig-shaped cookies)? I like those too. No sarcasm involved here. I really do like cookies that much.
    The problem with internet cookies is that they don’t taste good. Real cookies have value to me, but internet cookies just use up space. It should be possible to make a nice website without little tracker beacons everywhere.

  42. Eric Sandberg wrote on

    No. I am allergic to gluten, dairy, and most likely, eggs. I could not, should not, and most assuredly would not accept gifts from strangers. This is also why I should teach internet securty at the undergraduate level.

  43. Rita Shryock wrote on

    Getting “something” that I need to survive, like medical care, or food, yes, I’m willing to give up a certain amount of privacy. As long as it’s my choice. Most government intrusions on our privacy, however much they try to pretend it’s for our own good, is really just a way to keep us frightened, oppressed, controlled, and, possibly most important of all, silent.

  44. Mike wrote on

    Where is the link to order these free cookies?

  45. A Carter wrote on

    I found it richly ironic that you just got done warning about liking, sharing and commenting online because that is part of the data that is collected; and then you ended the podcast by inviting everyone to like, comment and share the episode