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Picture this: You are out in public—anywhere—and half the people around you are looking down… at their smartphones. What are they doing? They are texting, reading an article, playing a game, or they are using one of the many, many apps offered for smartphones. Smartphones are handheld computers that can perform almost any function that a computer can, but can also be susceptible to a virus and hacking and allow others to easily obtain your personal information or other sensitive data. Additionally, because of its size, the smartphone can be easily lost or stolen. It is important to understand how best to utilize the features and apps on your smartphone while protecting yourself and your personal information.

Smartphones and Privacy

There are a number of ways to keep the information on your smartphone secure. For example:

  • Keep your operating system up to date. It was reported lately that Android phones are susceptible to hacking, but any smartphone, and anything connected to the internet, is susceptible to hacking. The latest update will include security patches and virus recognition files to keep you more secure.
  • Use secure websites. When you are shopping online, do not input any personal information on a website unless it is secure. You can tell it is secure because it will have an “s” in the “https” before the URL. There may also be a lock symbol in the web address bar.
  • Lock your phone. Physical security is still important. If you lose your phone or someone steals it, your information is that much more secure if you lock your phone with a password or other security feature such as a fingerprint scanner.
  • Install apps from trusted sources only. Use your phone’s app store or other trusted sources rather than downloading them from an unknown website.
  • Maintain strong passwords and change them often. Use passwords that are long and use capital letters, numbers, or special characters.
  • Be smart about Wi-Fi networks. Do not use public Wi-Fi networks if you can avoid it because it makes your smartphones an easier target by cybercriminals. If you must use public Wi-Fi, do not provide your personal information on any website and do not access sensitive sources that require passwords such as your email or your bank app or website.

You can find out more information about smartphone protections by using the Smartphone Security Checker by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Apps and Privacy

Part of the benefit of having a smartphone is the use of a myriad of helpful and fun apps. These could be maps with directions and GPS services, apps that review stores and other merchants, banking apps, games, and innumerable other types of apps. But use of the apps often requires you to give various permissions and allow the app to access any number of things, such as your physical location, your contacts list, your web browsing and search habits, among others. Often, these apps require you to give up some of your privacy for you to benefit from using them. Here are some tips when determining whether you want to use these apps:

  • Actually read privacy policies. Many apps require you to give up some element of your privacy. For example, the app may require that you allow it to share the information it obtains from you with other parties. Read more about privacy policies on our blog.
  • Actually read and understand app permissions. Many apps require you to approve the app’s use of various aspects of your phone or information. If you are using a map app, for example, you probably need to allow it to know your physical location.
  • Only install apps from trusted sources. The legitimacy of apps can be determined in a variety of ways, including using a known and legitimate app store, checking online reviews, and comparing the official website of the app sponsor or creator with the store link to confirm consistency.

Tracking

When you go online, even on your smartphone, you are being tracked. Your phone, your web browser, websites, your wireless service provider, and the advertisements on those websites may be obtaining information about you. Apps may also be tracking information about you, such as   information about where you are physically located when you access a particular website on your phone. It may be information about your search words, or types of products you are viewing or buying. Tracking is designed to be a marketing tool in an effort to “feed” you targeted advertisements at a later time.

Here’s an example. You go online on your phone to look at televisions and use your smartphone and a web browser to do so. Because you are a savvy consumer, you go on several stores’ websites to compare prices. At some point later, you are near an electronics store and search online again, this time to look at something unrelated to televisions. You notice that now television advertisements are all over the website you are viewing, including an advertisement for the particular electronics store that is physically close to you at the time.

Your phone knows where you are physically located, the various websites you visited placed cookies on your phone, and when you accessed your browser again, the cookies allowed the electronics store websites to know you wanted a television. And that is why you saw those advertisements, even when you were on a website unrelated to the sale of televisions.

Is this all bad? Tracking is not necessarily a negative thing—you may consider it neutral or even positive. Perhaps you prefer to see advertisements for items you want to purchase rather than advertisements for random things that don’t interest you. But it is important to understand what is happening with your smartphone and learn how to address it.

Learn more about online tracking, cookies, and privacy on our blog.

Opting Out

So—you’ve read the privacy policies, you know how the phone, browser, websites, wireless service providers, advertisers, and apps will track you. Now what? You can try to opt-out of tracking by telling the web browser not to track your browsing habits. Although the browser may not track you, it can only “ask” the websites you visit not to track you (i.e. not place cookies on your device or remember your viewing history). The websites, however, do not necessarily have to comply. There is no opt-out feature on many apps—if you want to use the app and enjoy the convenience of its features, you need to accept and submit to its tracking.

There is a trade-off here: allow yourself to be tracked and use the technology, or do not use the technology so you will not be tracked. See below for some information about how to find the opt-out feature on smartphones or the Do Not Track feature on common web browsers.

Opt-out for interest-based advertisements:

Apple iPhone users

Google Android users

Do Not Track requests for browsers:

Apple Safari

Google Chrome and here

Microsoft Internet Explorer

Microsoft Edge

Mozilla Firefox

For Further Information

Visit the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation website for more information about protecting your privacy online and what to do in response to identity theft. If you have further questions, contact the Consumer Information Hotline at (617) 973-8787 or email a question.

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