In 2019 an article appeared in The Washington Post by Geoffrey Fowler described the author’s shock when he discovered how many of his iPhone apps were collecting and uploading information about his use while he slept.
As we all know by now, data is a huge commodity these days. If you’re using a phone, laptop, or other type of computing device (unless you’re a security expert or an advanced hacker with access to advanced blocking tools), you’ll pay for your apps by contributing marketing and other information to the companies that provide them.
Turn off personalized and location-based advertising
According to Apple’s advertising and privacy page:
Apple’s advertising platform does not track you, which means it does not associate user or device data collected through our apps with user or device data collected from third parties for targeted advertising or ad measurement purposes, and does not share user or device data with data brokers . .
However, the page goes on to say that contextual data such as information about your device, location, your App Store searches, and what you read on Apple News may be collected. You can get around this somewhat by disabling personalized and location-based ads.
To disable personalized ads
- Select your “Settings” app, tap “Privacy” and scroll down to and select “Apple Advertising” (it’s at the bottom of the list).
- Turn off ‘Personalized ads’.
To disable location-based advertising
- Select “Settings”> “Privacy”> “Location Services” (top of screen).
- Turn off Location Services.
On this page, you can also change several of your apps, such as the App Store or Maps, to never allow location access, prompt next time, or while using the app. Also note that you can still use the “Find My Phone” feature; it will temporarily enable location services.
To see how effectively your phone is secured, you can try taking the Panopticlick test, which is provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Among other things, it checks the fingerprints of devices. I ran it on an Apple iPhone 11 after following the instructions above, and I got a “partial protection” result for blocking tracking ads, blocking invisible trackers, and protecting against fingerprints.
If you are using the Safari browser on your iPhone, there are several things you can do to make it more secure.
- Go to Settings.”
- Select “Safari” and scroll down to the “Privacy and Security” section.
- Enable “Prevent cross-site tracking” (meaning advertisers and other third-party content providers cannot track you from one site to another).
- Enable ‘Block all cookies’. The cookies collected by various websites can contain a lot of information about how you use the site, what information you put in it, etc. Blocking cookies prevents data from being collected.
However, you will probably make yourself very uncomfortable. Your visits to sites are not recorded, so for example you cannot visit a playlist again or buy the same T-shirt you bought last year. Some sites will even deny access if you do not allow them to collect cookies. It is your choice.
Disable Background App Refresh
According to Apple, the reason for enabling Background App Refresh is to allow suspended apps (apps that are currently not running) to “check for updates and new content.” According to Disconnect, the privacy apps company Geoffrey Fowler mentions in his article, it also allows apps to collect and send tradable tracking data even when you’re not using the app. Interestingly, iPhones come with Background App Refresh enabled, but it’s not terribly difficult to disable.
- Go to Settings.”
- Select ‘General’.
- Select ‘Background app refresh’.
- You will see a list of all apps that use this feature, and they will all be enabled. Find “Background apps refresh” at the top of the page and tap it.
- You will be taken to a page where you can turn it on for Wi-Fi and mobile data, for Wi-Fi only, or you can turn it off completely. Select ‘Off’.
- If you go back to the previous page, you will see that all switches for the different apps are completely gone.
You may want to be selective about which apps can run in the background. Some apps may not work properly otherwise. For example, Google Photos doesn’t automatically back up your camera roll unless this feature is turned on. So, if you prefer, you can leave “Background app refresh” enabled and then choose which specific apps to disable.
Update March 8, 2021, 5:00 PM ET: This article was originally published on May 30, 2018; several parts have been updated to reflect changes in iOS.