How User Tracking is Different on Mobile

Just how secure is your mobile device?

Most of us have several mobile devices, possibly from more than one manufacturer. Fortunately, the same tracking issues apply across all mobile devices and they resemble those for the internet, discussed in my previous post. Brands do make a difference in mobile, though. I’ll make this as non-technical as possible by identifying three main areas of concern.

First, the issue of antivirus protection. Mobile devices can be infected with viruses and other malware, but the antivirus software that is the first line of defense on the internet does not work as well on mobile. Brands matter a lot here. Apple products have their own strong privacy protection and do not give outside apps the kind of device-wide access they need to function properly. Still, most of the major antivirus software suites offer mobile protection. Here’s an article that explains in a straightforward manner. Do read reviews carefully before you decide to install any security app.

There are many security apps for Android devices, many of them from well-known developers. However, there is a great deal of agreement among security experts that they do not add much to the user’s protection. Far better is to keep all phone software and apps updated and keep up your guard against phishing scams. Be especially careful about downloading Android apps from sites other than Google Play.

Second is the issue of apps themselves. Some apps are riddled with malware that steals personal data. Warning: if the app is designed to do something unethical or potentially illegal like downloading content that should be paid for, it has a high probability of carrying malware and you should avoid it.

In general, the first line of defense is to only download apps from the brand stores—Apple Store or Google Play. They work hard to ensure that apps on these platforms are safe but are not always successful. The second line of defense is to read reviews and look at number of downloads before you decide. Good reviews, of both performance and privacy, are obviously important. But a high number of downloads is another indication of trustworthiness. Very important, look at the list of permissions the app will ask for. On the download screen you will see an icon for the app’s privacy policy. Look at all of it, but pay special attention to a heading like ‘the information we will ask for.’ I understand why my gardening apps ask for my location. Why would, say, a crossword app need to know my location? If it’s not obvious why the app needs that data/how it will use the data, be suspicious. If you still want to download, immediately look at the permissions and be sure they are set the way you want them. If your device starts behaving strangely, immediately report the app to the site where you downloaded it.

Third is the elephant in the mobile room—location tracking. The first easy step is to look at which apps are tracking your location. On Apple devices, you’ll find it in Location Services, on Android in Security and Location. Amazon has a voluminous privacy policy with separate statements for devices and for Alexa. These links will let you read the policies online, which may be easier.

Wearable devices are a special category when it comes to location tracking. Whether it’s a smart watch or a fitness device or a medical tracking device, they have the ability to know your exact location at any given time. That can be a blessing as well as a curse. In the event of illness or accident wearables can allow the user to summon help and provide the correct location. That assumes the device is set to allow those functions, and, in the name of safety, they probably should be. The settings for medical devices should be discussed with the care provider, with attention being paid to both personal safety and data security.

Here are some general solutions for both internet and mobile:

  1. Decide not to worry about tracking and stay on sites you trust. There is considerable merit in this approach. Most users have a clear sense of which sites they trust and which they do not. Just visiting and doing business with trusted sites is a viable strategy, even though you may miss some of the cool stuff on the web.
  2. Turn all security settings up to the maximum. You’ll find browsing slowed considerably with lots of warnings and terms to accept. You may decide that it’s not worth the annoyance, but the settings are easy to change and the experience will be informative.
  3. Do not remain signed in on any sites. This will prevent sites linking your name to your browsing data. If that makes you feel better, by all means do it. Everyone should be careful about which sites they trust enough to remain signed in. Remember the warning that it is unsafe to allow any transactional site to save your credit card data.

By now, you’ve realized that both internet and mobile devices are collecting a lot of data about you. I’ll do one more follow-up on how to remove stored data.


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