Protect Your Personal Data When Using Apps & Social Networks

Privacy: it’s been a hot topic in tech recently. Over the past few months, we’ve seen a number of cases of apps collecting and using user information in a way that compromises privacy and security. Most recently, Facebook users learned that an app within the social network collected user data and shared it with the Trump campaign. The app not only used data it collected from users who downloaded it but also gathered data about their friends. In another recent case, a popular fitness app called Strava was found to be exposing information about the geography of military bases through its heat map feature. In the face of these privacy breaches, it’s natural for smartphone users to wonder how they can protect themselves. Here are a few methods I use to ensure that apps can only access information I’m comfortable sharing:


Review privacy policies

Apps, social networks, and other online services have privacy policies that outline how they’ll use your personal data. To protect yourself, it’s wise to review these policies whenever possible. Sure, they’re typically long and dripping with legalese but even having a general understanding can help identify areas of concern. It’s also good practice to know how these services are using your personal information so you can take necessary precautions when sharing information.


When in doubt, refuse access

When users download new apps, they often go through the motions of granting access to areas of their phone like their contact list, location, and microphone. I confess that even I’ve cruised through the process of granting an app permissions without taking the time to really read and understand the requests. The trouble with this is that many apps, especially free ones, ask for access to areas of your phone so they can collect your data and sell it for marketing purposes. To protect yourself, I recommend reading each request and really thinking about why the app would need access to this information. For example, a game shouldn’t need access to your location data unless it’s essential to gameplay, like in the case of Pokemon GO!


When in doubt, I recommend rejecting the requests. If the app truly cannot perform a task without accessing a certain area of your phone, it will prompt you when you try to perform this task. At that time, you can simply go into your phone’s settings and modify the permissions for the app. This will help you to ensure that apps can only access the information essential to their functionality.


Watch out for apps within apps

Social networks like Facebook have begun to allow the integration of other apps into their services. Many of these apps can enhance the social media experience but it’s important to be aware of the data they’re collecting since it’s often being sold or used to enable marketers to better target ads. As such, it’s important to keep in mind that when you enable a quiz or game app within your Facebook account, you’re granting it access to a wealth of data like your age, location, preferences, and information about your friends. Take a moment to consider whether you really need to take that quiz or play that game before you grant it access to your profile.


Audit permissions

So far, I’ve covered a lot of ground about how to prevent apps and services from accessing your information in the first place but you may be wondering what you can do about those that you’ve already granted access to. Well, the answer is simple but the task isn’t always easy: you have to audit the permissions you’ve granted to various apps and services. When it comes to apps, I recommend taking a cruise through the settings menu on your phone to find out which areas of your phone each app is accessing. It’s likely that you’ll find that some apps unnecessarily have permission to access your contact list, location, or microphone. It’s also a good idea to go into each app and review its privacy policy.


When it comes to online services like social networks, you’ll find that most have a privacy section within the settings or preferences menu. Take the time to familiarize yourself with what kind of information these services are sharing or making public and remove or disable any apps that you’ve previously granted permissions to but no longer use.


With apps and online services becoming such an integral part of our daily lives, we won’t be able to escape sharing our personal data anytime soon. That being said, by taking a more critical approach to granting permissions to online services and apps, we can still protect our personal information.