How To Protect Your Privacy on Android Phones

By Ryan Whitwam

Keep your data secret, sort of.

Users of Android phones know that Google's services are tightly integrated with the device. For most of us, that's all well and good. But in the wake of the iOS tracking incident, the recent data thefts from Sony's PlayStation Network, and now LastPass hacking, we have to wonder if it's not better to just opt out of some of these services. Android offers some ways to reduce your data exposure and increase the overall level of security and privacy. 

Location aware robots 

Android allows the user control over location determination. If you're not okay with Google, or third party apps knowing where you are, just head over to your main system settings. You should have an option called "location and security". This might vary based on your Android ROM. In this menu you will see two checkboxes at the top of the screen under the heading My Location. 

These control how the phone is able to locate you when an app requests it. These checkboxes individually control the network/Wi-Fi system, and the GPS system. The network location service is less accurate, but faster. The GPS location is slower and needs a reasonable view of the sky, but it's very accurate. You can uncheck both of these if you want apps to be ignorant of your location. If you decide to re-enable the network location service, Android pops up a box so you can okay the collection of anonymous location data. We appreciate that Google offers this option. 

Your data backups 

This service was introduced in Android 2.0, and expanded in 2.2. As it stands, Android's data backup collects your installed apps, background, system settings, Wi-Fi passwords, and the data associated with your apps. All told, that's a lot of stuff Google is keeping for you. Information like your system settings aren't particularly important, but there could be a lot of sensitive information in your app data.

If you want to turn off the automatic data backup, head back to your main system settings. This time, open up your Privacy settings. In this menu, the top two checkboxes under Backup and Restore are your targets. The uncheck "Back up my data" to keep your settings from being synced to the Google cloud. The next option toggles the restore function. You can leave this if you still want new devices to pull your data down, but don't want any more backups made.

If you turn off backups, new Android devices will not download your existing apps and data when you log in. We have always really liked this service. It makes switching to a new Android device really simple. You just log in, and let the device becomes fills up with your content. 

Google search 

The top option here is for the main Google search settings. From the next screen, you can turn off location-aware searches (Use my Location), and stop your previous searches from being displayed at all. This is handy if you just don't want people seeing your search history on the phone. 

Similarly, back on the search settings page, take a look at your Searchable Items category. Many apps tie into your system search so that content can be found faster. The only problem is that some of this is sensitive information. There's probably no reason for your searches to pull up financial data from Mint. You can uncheck the box for any app you do not want included in your Google data.

Going the other way, upstream to Google, you should know that searches are still being logged. To clear out your search history, you can hit the Manage Search History option in the settings, or from the menu popup back in the search app itself. Android will boot you to the browser for the next step and you'll have to log into your account. This can also be done from a computer, but the page can be a little hard to find. Android will link you right to it. When you log in, you can clear individual searches, or clear everything with the link at the top. 



If you just want to up your privacy level, an app in the Market called Privacy Blocker could be of use. This app inventories your installed apps, and reports back on the data they are collecting. It also explains what those apps might be doing with said data. If you're not okay with what's going down on your device, you can uninstall the offending app or, more interestingly, spoof it. 

Privacy Blocker will fool the app into thinking you are using a different phone, with a different unique ID, and a different phone number. This can be used on system apps too if you want to keep the Big G out of your hair. The only problem is that a spoofed app breaks updates. If you want to update an app, you have to revert it back, then update and re-spoof if you like. Privacy Blocker is on sale for $1.99 in the Market.

Android phones do track you, they do suck some data up into the cloud, and apps can collect information from you. Luckily, Android also lets users get in there and change how things work. While following all the advice above will increase your privacy technically speaking, it will also make you phone a lot less fun to use. How worried about privacy on mobile device are you? Have you taken any steps to increase your personal phone security?   

Lead image via Flickr user