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Default App Settings to Change for Better Privacy

Adjusting your default app settings can help you protect your privacy.

How many apps do you have installed on your smartphone? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? A 2022 study found that the average smartphone user has 40 apps installed on their phone. If you use your phone a lot or use it for work, you probably have more. And each of those apps has its own developer, its own privacy policy, and its own default security settings. And those default app settings are usually designed for the company’s benefit, not yours.

People often avoid thinking about how their default app settings might be compromising their privacy. They think it’s hard or complicated, or that it will take a lot of time, or they don’t want to feel like they have to delete their favorite app. But you don’t have to be a technological genius to take control of your own data. Just a few simple adjustments can go a long way towards keeping apps from getting your data.

Why You Should Be Aware of Default App Settings

Companies know your data is valuable. If they can get access to it, there’s a lot of benefit for them. They can use it to target you, or they can sell it to other companies who want to target you. They often claim that giving them your data is actually good for you. In addition to making them a lot of profit, your data can catch bugs, train algorithms, and make devices and services easier to use. But sharing isn’t always in your best interest.

Apps are easy to download and come with a variety of useful tools and fun features. But figuring out what data they have access to and what information they’re collecting can be inconvenient if you don’t know what to look for. There’s an old saying that goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” If you’re not paying for an app with your money, you’re probably paying with your data.

Some apps do legitimately need your information to work. For example, rideshare apps like Uber can’t send a driver to your location unless they know your location. But many apps are irresponsible with your data. They gather information they don’t need or send data to other parties who definitely don’t need it. Once you determine which default app settings can be changed and what data you can’t stop an app from collecting, you can make a more educated decision about which apps you think are worth a potential sacrifice of privacy.

Change Your Phone Settings

Even without looking at any default app settings, there are some general settings on your phone that you can change. These settings will limit what information apps can access, regardless of what the app itself tries to get. Changing these settings can increase your privacy.

If you have an iPhone, go to the Settings app, then choose the Privacy menu. Here, you can see what apps have access to what data, and you can change how you share it. These are a few settings you can change to better secure your data:

  • Turn off Allow Apps to Request to Track – this tells apps not to share your information for marketing purposes.
  • Under Apple Advertising, toggle off Personalized Ads – this stopps Apple from using your data to target you with advertising.
  • Under Analytics & Improvement, toggle off Share iPhone Analytics – this prevents your iPhone from sending your data to Apple to improve their products.
  • Go to Location Services, then System Services, and toggle off Routing & Traffic – this prevents your iPhone from sharing your geolocation data.

If you have an Android phone, you can go to Settings, then Apps, then Permissions to see what apps have access to what data. You can also disable their access right from that screen. Other settings are accessed online at myactivity.google.com/data-and-privacy. The Privacy Checkup available there is a great tool. You can also set Web & App Activity, Location History, and YouTube history to delete data that is more than three months old. That way it still has enough data to make useful recommendations, but isn’t creating a permanent record of your activity.

Change App Permissions

Many default app settings ask for permissions they don’t need. Then they get access to data they shouldn’t have. But even if you’ve already gave them that access, you can revoke it whenever you want. This could mean revoking it permanently, or just revoking it when it’s not needed. We mentioned rideshare apps previously – they do need location access when you’re using them, but when you’re not actively calling a ride, you can revoke their access so they’re not sending your location anywhere.

On iOS, go to Settings, then choose Privacy. On Android 6.0 and higher, go to Settings, then Apps, then choose Permissions. Check which apps have permission to access what data. Revoke that permission for any app that doesn’t need it. Your camera app, for example, should never need access to make phone calls. And your maps app may need location access when you’re trying to get directions, but if you’re not actively trying to go somewhere right now, you can turn that off, too. As a bonus, this will save your phone’s battery!

You can also do this on an app-by-app basis by opening the app, finding the settings menu, and looking for a menu called “Privacy,” “Security,” “Data Collection,” or something similar. Then turn off as many permissions and data-sharing agreements as you can. We have guides for managing your Facebook and Google Chrome privacy settings. For other apps, try Googling the app’s name and the phrase “privacy settings” or “privacy guide” for detailed advice.

Protect Your Data from Malicious Default App Settings

It’s important to make sure that your data is safe from the apps you already have installed on your phone. But privacy isn’t a one-time deal. You don’t want a new app you downloaded to expose your data with some particularly malicious default app settings. And you don’t want changes in your current apps to undo all your hard work. Protecting your privacy is an ongoing task, but it doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Here are some tips.

Investigate New Apps Before You Download

Before you install a new app, make sure you look carefully at it to ensure it respects your privacy. Some app store developers now include information about how they protect your data in the description. Almost all app stores also require a “Disclosures” section at the bottom of the page with information about what data an app collects and how it uses it.

Very few of us are actually interested in reading privacy policies. But at least make sure the app has one available. If you want to be extra secure, you can also skim through it to find the section where it explains what data it can access, what data it actually collects, what it does with that data, and who it shares it with.

Beware of Suspicious Permissions

When you download an app, you probably have a specific purpose in mind for it. Consider what it actually needs access to in order to do what you want. If you download a photo editing app, for example, it will need access to your photos or camera roll in order to work. But does it need access to your contacts? Probably not.

Beware the game app that wants to access your microphone, the calculator that wants your location, and the weather app that wants to make calls. Sound crazy? It happens! In one famous case, an Android flashlight app collected and shared people’s device ID and exact location. And in another, Apple’s Siri used to record private information and store it where contractors could access it (although Apple fixed this problem in 2021). At the very least, deny any permissions that an app doesn’t need to function. But if the default app settings ask for inappropriate permissions, it’s probably best to choose a different app.

Use Privacy-Focused Apps

A lot of very popular apps collect, share, and even expose your data by default. But most of them have privacy-focused alternatives available. Signal, for example, is a secure messaging app whose default settings enable end-to-end encryption. DuckDuckGo is a search engine that explicitly does not collect, store, or share your data.

There are all sorts of privacy-focused apps out there. These types of apps will clearly say what data they have to access or collect in order to work, if any, and that they don’t share with anyone else unless it’s legally required. Other apps, like Bitdefender or a VPN, might not be privacy-enhanced alternatives of riskier apps, but they’ll help keep you more secure overall.

Regularly Check your Apps

Regular app maintenance is good for your privacy and security in general. Installing updates is always a good plan – updates are how you get new security features and improvements. But check your default app settings and permissions regularly, especially after updates. Sometimes updates turn default settings back on. And sometimes updates mean an app now has additional permissions or collects additional data. So it’s always good to re-check periodically.

In addition, when you are checking your apps, delete the ones you don’t use. Apps that aren’t being used can sometimes collect and share your data without your knowledge. Sometimes this is by design, and sometimes it’s just a security flaw that hasn’t been fixed. Either way, if you’re not using it, it’s best to get rid of it. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s easy to re-download and you haven’t used it in more than a month, uninstall it.

Should You Change Your Default App Settings?

We’ve spent all this time talking about how and when to change your default app settings. But we haven’t stopped to talk about whether you should. Is it always worthwhile to change the settings, adjust the permissions, and keep apps from accessing as much as possible?

In some cases, the answer is obviously yes. Sharing your data for marketing purposes is never in your best interest. And it’s never good when apps want permission to access information they don’t need. But not all default settings are necessarily malicious. Sharing your geolocation data with maps apps improves the maps. Sharing analytics data leads to updates to improve apps or devices and the apps or devices created in the future being better. And leaving your history on can make information more relevant and personalized to you.

What we have is the eternal tension of privacy versus convenience. Do you want an app to work to its fullest potential, or do you want to keep your data as private as possible? That’s a very personal question. You can sacrifice some privacy for more convenience and better functionality, but it’s a trade-off. Ultimately, it is up to you what you prioritize and value. You have the choice to trade some of your data for more function, or accepting somewhat subpar functionality to protect your privacy.

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