If you haven’t read the first part of this, you’ll want to do that.
This second part isn’t going to be a condemnation of smartphones or even social media. It’s not a cute little checklist about how to make your phone not spy on you; in fact, you can’t. It is, however, a few ideas of common sense things you can do to at least cut down on the free exchange of private data you currently have going on. But before we get started, here’s one thing you need to understand.
If Everything is Critical, Nothing Is
Doing a critical information analysis is, well, critical. Before you start changing your lifestyle — which, by the way, some of these things will require — you need to decide what your personal risk level is, and what information is necessary and worth it to you to protect. One of the reasons that people don’t bother protecting information is that they get burned out. Let’s face it: in order to completely get off of the information grid, you’d need to never use a phone, computer, debit card, or public library ever again. You’d need to never drive a car, go anywhere where there’s a security camera, go to a doctor, have a job, or raise a child. Let’s be realistic — that’s not going to happen. So even before you read further, you’ll need to perform an info analysis on yourself to figure out what IS feasible, and what actually needs protecting. The links in this paragraph go to the series I wrote last spring on exactly how to do that, so if you’re not familiar, start there.
Phase 1 Things to Do
We all know that not everyone is going to read this list and get right on it. Some things might not work or you for whatever reason. You might say you simply don’t want to do them. The bottom line is that people have free will; we present information but ultimately you need to decide what you can, will, and are able to do based on your comfort and training level, risk factors, and other things that come into play.
Delete all unused apps
The first and perhaps most obvious thing you can do is delete any app you haven’t used in a while. For some people that means the last 30 days. If you really look at your phone, you’ll notice there are a core set of apps you use on a daily basis, some that you might use every week or two, and others that you almost never use but keep “just in case.” Those apps, whether you’re using them or not, can be sending info to various entities. If you aren’t using it very often, delete it.
Delete all non-essential apps
Here’s where it gets fun, because now we need to decide what’s essential, and only you can do that. Some of the things you may need to take a hard look at might include all of your games, time-waster apps, and other such things. You’ll know them when you see them.
Delete or stop using all obvious information-collecting apps
This is going to be much harder than the previous two categories, because it means changing how you do things. In this stage, you go through all the apps that make things convenient by offering you access to things that 1) you could easily do on a computer instead, or 2) could keep track of with an old school method (hey, remember pen and paper?)
- Finance apps: banking, budgeting, spending, investing
- Medical apps: symptom checkers, medication reminders, migraine trackers, apps for fertility or menstrual cycles, sleep trackers, etc.
- Diet and Fitness apps: Food lists, calorie counters, workout routines, recipes, and more
- Shopping apps: Your favorite merchants, discount code finders, etc.
- Entertainment apps: streaming services, music, etc.
- News apps: Feedreaders, curators like Flipboard, etc.
- Mapping apps: Waze, Google Maps, etc.
- Personal Development: Journaling apps, to-do lists, calendars, etc.
- Email: If you run a business, or must have email for work on your phone, that’s one thing. But can you wait until you get home to answer your personal email?
You may be looking at this list and thinking, “But I would be lost without these!” Actually you wouldn’t; you’d start relying on hard copy maps or listening to traffic reports on the radio instead. You’d get a planner and carry it like many people do to handle to-dos and appointments. You’d get a paper journal and write in that. You’d keep track of your food the old-fashioned way. You’d check your balances and do your banking on your computer at home or start using a checkbook register again. You’d learn to adjust your schedule to make time for things that are important.
Convenience, whether we like it or not, breeds complacency — and complacency is the enemy of us all. Are car rear view cameras and lane drift alarms making people better drivers? Can a diet app replace willpower or self-discipline? Is pulling up a GPS app on your phone making you better at navigating unfamiliar areas? All of these things ultimately make us dependent, to some extent, on the app doing the work. It’s no different than a student using a calculator to do their math homework. They’ll get the right answer, but are they learning the math skills? What calendar apps and to-do reminders and alarms for everything have taught us is that we don’t have to pay attention to our obligations, we don’t need to be mindful of where we are in the moment and what we need to be doing. We can just go about our day however we like and our phone will tell us when it’s time to do something productive, or when we are obligated to be somewhere. I would argue that not only is that a horrible way to live if you value your personal information, but it’s also in direct opposition to values like self-discipline, productivity, and self-reliance.
If you went whole hog on this, you’d see some serious forced lifestyle changes. There would be a transition period that might be a bit chaotic as you work your way into the new (old) system. You might have to research purchases more instead of using your app to find you the best deals. You might need to train yourself to set aside some time each morning to plan your day, go over your tasks, and see what your time will look like. Oddly enough, when I switched to a planner instead of using my phone, I became more productive, with more time left over to do things I actually liked doing, such as working on sustainability here on my farm. It was hard at first to get into the day-planning routine, but I also found that deleting my time-waster apps helped with that too. Go figure.
One type of app I did choose to keep for myself is the educational genre. Coursera, Udemy, Duolingo, even Kindle, all of these apps are great replacements for Candy Crush or other apps you generally pull up when you’re waiting in line, sitting on a train, or have a few minutes to kill. Instead of playing a game or feeding the info machine, you can feed your brain. Read a good book that will expand your thinking. Take an online course. Learn another language. Take practice tests for your ham license.
While this article certainly isn’t intended to be a sermon on time management, one of the things you’ll find as you disconnect for privacy’s sake is that you’re no longer dependent on your phone. You’ll be in better control of your own data, but you’ll also be more in control of your time — and time is just as important, because do any of us really have enough?
If you’re thinking you just really want to skip to the hard stuff, check out Phase 3.
Phase 2 Things to Do
Okay, so let’s assume you’ve cleaned up your phone. Now instead of being a snapshot of your entire life, your phone is basically, well, a phone. Now let’s take a look at a few other things you can do. Again, this is all dependent on your willingness to do it, after doing a critical information analysis.
Get a VPN
There are plenty of virtual private networks, or VPNs, that you can run on your phone. It’ll change the location on your browser and other apps that connect to the internet, and that can help you a bit overall. What it can NOT do, is change the location that your phone spits out when it talks to cell towers, etc. Also keep in mind that some VPNs actually sell your anonymized browsing data themselves, so pay attention to which one you’re using and what their policies are.
This list, created by people who do a lot of torrent downloading (a different subject entirely, but suffice it to say they don’t want their data collected or tracked), shows a specific list of questions that a bunch of VPNs had to answer in their survey. When viewing the answers, use your active reading skills to see past the words to the meaning. For instance, one of the questions is:
Do you keep ANY logs which would allow you to match an IP-address and a time stamp to a user of your service? If so, exactly what information do you hold and for how long?
There is a right answer to that question, and the shorter the better.
Other things to do:
- Get Firefox Focus, which deletes your history and browser data at the end of each session. It won’t do much for data collection, but it’ll help a bit when it comes to the internet location stuff.
- Use Signal instead of your stock messaging app. Stay away from WhatsApp and Telegram, etc.
- Don’t use your browser to sign into the accounts you just deleted the apps for.
Phase 3: Go All Out
If you really want to get it done, you could go one of these routes.
- Turn your phone off when it’s not in use, and keep it in a Faraday bag. Make sure you test the bag extensively before actually trusting it. I’ve seen bags billed as Faraday bags that couldn’t shield a thing if they tried. Keep in mind that every single time you take your phone out of the bag, it’ll tell everyone who wants to know where you are. Thinking of it that way might make you think twice before pulling it out.
- Downgrade to a pre-paid flip phone. There are plenty of places to get them, and now that you’ve deleted all of your non-essential apps, why not?
- Get rid of your cell phone entirely and go back to landlines.
- For bonus points, get your family on board with you too. It won’t matter if you ditch everything, if your spouse still has a smartphone with 50,000 apps, most of which are of the variety you just deleted from yours.
Obviously, this list of suggestions won’t work for everyone. You might find that none of these are things you’re willing to do. You may find that you’re willing to come a little ways down the list but not all the way. I get that; anyone who knows me knows that I always have my phone on me. As a contractor who needs to be available to my clients (and who lives in a very remote location), I can’t afford not to have a phone with me. But there are still steps I’ve taken that help mitigate some of the risks I’m facing.
The bottom line is that you cannot stop your phone from spying on you. You can’t stop it from broadcasting your location or reporting back to certain entities what’s you’re doing on it. What you can do, is start whittling down how easy you’re making it to do so.
What other steps can you think of that might help?