How to Protect Your Privacy on Android Without Making Your Smartphone Dumb

Your Android phone knows where you are and what you’re doing, and it’ll share that data with Google and any number of app developers. If you’re a privacy-minded individual, you might not want to fling your data around freely. At the same time, you bought a smartphone in order to make use of all its cool features. There is a middle ground between being completely open and shutting off all your phone’s features. Let’s try to find it.

Secure your location data

You will hear plenty of people advocating turning off location completely to enhance privacy, but I don’t think you need to go that far on newer version of Android. There are plenty of times you do want an app to be able to access your location. It’s better to make use of Android’s built-in permission system and disable automatic tracking through Google.

You may not realize, but Google maintains a full history of where your phone has been. You can see it in the Maps app under “Your Timeline.” If you don’t like the idea of your phone constantly uploading your location to Google, you can disable that in the settings. It’s under Settings > Location > Location History. You can turn it off with the toggle at the top, and your phone will stop uploading your location to Google.

Next, it’s time to take advantage of the permission system Google rolled out in Marshmallow. Head to the settings and find the app permissions list. Sometimes this is hidden in the overflow menu. One of the entries in the permission list will be location. Tap that and you get a list of all apps on your phone that request the location permission. You can turn all of them off here if you want, or just leave the essentials on. Apps will request location when you open them, but that can be denied.

Disable interest-based ads

You’ll never be able to completely get away from ads and product placement, but you can at least ensure your personal data is not used for advertising purposes. The toggle is accessible in your settings, but it’s buried in the Google settings.

Open your main system settings and look for the Google section. It might not be visible on devices that have paginated settings, but it’s there. Sometimes it’s called “Google,” and other it’ll be “Google Services.” When you find it, scroll down and look for the “Ads” section. Inside that is a toggle to opt-out of interest-based ads. Easy.

With this switch flipped, Some people will tell you rooting and disabling ads with one of those root-only apps is the way to go. No one really likes looking at ads, but rooting most devices is a pain and will prevent you from using secure services like Android Pay. This way just makes more sense for most users.

Browsers and keyboards

The things you do in Chrome are attached to your Google account, which can be handy for things like autocomplete and tab syncing. It’s also a bit of a privacy concern. An easy fix for this is to use Incognito mode in Chrome (Menu > New incognito tab). This doesn’t control what other sites know about you, but it prevents your session history from being saved on the phone or in Google.

As an alternative, you can simply use a different browser that’s geared toward privacy. I happen to like Ghostery Browser for this. It includes the ability to block trackers, ads, and it doesn’t save your data. InBrowser is a popular option too with support for TOR, user agent switching, and no user data saved.

You keyboard app sees everything you type, so it’s important you only use keyboards you trust. Going a bit further, you can turn off data sharing for added privacy. For example, Google’s Gboard will ask you to share snippets of text so it can improve suggestions. To turn that off, head into the Gboard settings and open the Advanced menu. At the bottom you can disable snippets and usage statistics.

If you’re using SwiftKey, there’s data sharing integrated with your account. Check those settings, and there’s a handy link to remove your remote data from SwiftKey’s servers.

Sanitize search and account settings

Even if you haven’t been taking your privacy seriously, Android still provides a do-over of sorts. Your usage and search data is accessible, and you can delete all or some of it if you want. To check out what Google has on you, head back to the Google settings menu and open “Accounts and privacy.” Open “My Activity” to see all the usage data associated with your account in a web browser. This includes app usage, websites visited, searches performed, voice searches, and more.

The menu on the activity page includes the option to delete activity. You can get rid of certain things or all of it. Back in the Accounts and privacy menu, you might want to go into “Google activity Controls.” That’ll let you decide which sorts of data will be saved in your activity going forward. You might just want to disable a few of these and leave the rest active. For example, maybe you want voice history to remain active so the OK Google detection will be enhanced for your voice.

Use a VPN

By far the best way to improve your privacy on Android (and in general) is to use a trusted VPN whenever possible. There are a few ways to do this, including one that requires almost no setup if you’re using a Nexus or Pixel phone. Using a VPN means all your data is encrypted and passed through a remote server before reaching its destination. So, someone attempting to track your usage will only see you connecting to the VPN.

WiFi Assistant will automatically run your data through a Google VPN. Enable this by going to the Google settings and clicking on Networking. There’s a toggle for WiFi Assistant in that menu. Google will connect your phone to open WiFi networks when you’re out, but the VPN will come on to keep your data safe.

So what if you don’t want all your data passing through Google’s servers? You can choose whatever VPN provider you want. There are free ones out there, but they aren’t very fast and have no incentive to protect your data. It’s best to pay for one that has a good Android app so you can leave it on all the time. Private Internet Access is a popular choice, and it’s not too expensive. The app supports always-on VPN connections and it keeps no traffic logs. NordVPN gets consistently high marks too. Its Android app is slick and you can subscribe via the Play Store.

There are also controls in the Android network settings to manually add VPN servers, but the apps make it easier to switch settings. You should go that route, if possible.

Wrapping up

You’ll never have perfect privacy protections carrying around a smartphone, but you do it because smartphones are useful. Still, with a few tweaks you can keep your data safer without making your phone annoying to use. Even if you trust Google, you should at least look into a VPN solution to keep your ISP from selling your data.


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