Don't let your smartphone track you

Ask Maggie offers tips to keep your device and apps from snooping on you.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read

It's just you and your data shadow.

Chris Fernandez

Dear Maggie,

I'm freaked out by reports about how my smartphone can be used to track my every move. Is there anything I can do to maintain my privacy ?




Dear Paranoid,

Unfortunately, your concerns are rooted in reality. Smartphones have become a human "electronic tag" that we constantly carry with us. Precise locations, dates, times, durations and what you did before and after opening an app or website are all tracked by your phone carrier and the companies that provide your favorite services.

Some of this can't be avoided. By design, wireless carriers always know where you are because your phone checks every few seconds for the strongest signal from nearby cell towers. They're also tracking you to ensure you can be found in an emergency.

But thousands of apps are also keeping tabs on where you go, often for advertising purposes.

So what can you do to preserve your privacy?

Audit your apps' privacy and location services

Check the privacy settings of the apps running on your phone. Remove apps you no longer use. Disable location services for apps and services that don't need to know where you are.

Tweak location settings by app

Some apps do need to collect your location data to function, but others don't. iPhone users can tweak the settings of their apps by going to Settings, Privacy and then Location Services, then select Always, While Using or Never for each app on your phone.

Android users don't have this option, but they can limit the degree of tracking accuracy from their phones. The High Accuracy setting uses GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or mobile networks to determine where you are. Battery Saving mode uses only Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or mobile networks. And the Device Only setting uses only GPS and device sensors to determine location.

Watch this: Incognito mode comes to Google Maps

Turn off location history setting

Apple and Android devices keep a list of "Frequent Locations" you visit and how long you stay there. If this gives you the heebie-jeebies, clear history in settings.

Use a VPN

A virtual private network encrypts your online activity and allows you to route your traffic to different servers to mask your location.

Opt out of targeted ads

Advertisers are hungry for information about where you physically go and how long you spend there. Whenever possible, opt out of targeted ads.

Turn off all your device's location services

As a last resort, you might consider disabling location services on your device. Be warned, though: This is an extreme solution. Without location services, you won't be able to use a mapping service or locate your device if it gets lost or stolen.

The bottom line: By default, using a smartphone means giving up some privacy. Taking a few precautionary steps can limit your exposure.

Marguerite Reardon (@maggie_reardon) answers readers' phone, wireless and broadband questions. Email yours to maggie.reardon@cbsinteractive.com. Please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

This story appears in the summer 2019 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.

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