How to make your
smartphone
more private

The recent scandal related to Xiaomi is only a drop in the vast ocean of privacy issues and misleading of users related to data gathered by companies or different applications. Like we mentioned in our article, what Xiaomi did is not OK, but sadly they are far from the only company that is doing this. On the bright side, there is a way for you to make your phone more private and to make it harder for companies to have access to your personal information.

Depending on the level of privacy you are looking for you may only do a subset of the features presented here. Furthermore, these are not the only solutions and there may be multiple alternatives to the services listed here. We wrote about the services that we use and trust or the ones that we believe are worth your time (and money in some cases). Also, keep in mind that it may be hard (at least in the beginning) to renounce some of the services that you are used to and are used by most of your friends and family. Lastly, we would like to add that we were not payed by any of the providers mentioned here.

Step 0: Install a custom ROM (optional)

If you have an Android smartphone it probably has Google services pre-installed. Google is known for tracking users all over the web and on their smartphones. It knows what websites you visit, where you are going and staying, and what are your main interested. The sheer amount of information that Google has on each individual allows them to display the most relevant ads for you and in turn make them money.

So, if you truly want privacy, nog having Google is a big step. To get rid of Google apps you will need to ROOT your device or, even better, install a custom ROM that does not have these apps pre-installed. Here, we recommend you take a look at LineageOS. This custom ROM is based on the Android Open Source Project and comes with many features and customizability options. It also puts a lot of effort into privacy, which we are looking for right now. There may be other options out there that can have even more security and privacy features (like GraphoneOS or CopperheadOS), but Lineage has a better device base than most.

Step 1: Remove apps and be careful what you install

The more apps that you use, the greater the chances that one of them is sending personal data to a remote server. There are even ad networks that track a user across apps and across websites, so even if the actual developer of an app does not want explicitly to track people, the simple fact that he has to rely on ad revenue can compromise, more or less, your privacy. To mitigate this, we recommend you pay attention to the apps you install and, whenever possible, buy the apps so that the ads are removed.

Also, uninstall or disable applications from companies or services known to share private data. The sheer amount of scandals related to Facebook by now should have already determined you to remove it from your smartphone if you care about privacy. This also means removing other apps from the same company like Messenger and WhatsApp. Facebook is not the only one, so do a quick scan on your smartphone and see what apps you really don’t need. Also, disable any Google app if you have them installed: Google search, GMail, Google News, etc. Don’t worry, we have alternatives for most later on.

Step 2: Switch to a privacy-focused Web Browser
& Search Engine

One of the most simple ways of tracking a person online is through the websites that you visit. Google Analytics is one of the most used visitor tracking services and it is used by Google. Google also runs the biggest online ad network, so it tracks you that way as well. There are also companies that insert cookies and tracking scripts in your browser and have easy access to your browsing history. Ever searched for something online and in the next few hours you saw ads all over the net about that product? Yah… This is how they did it.

In order to stop this I would recommend you switch to a privacy-focused web browser. You won’t be missing anything and will have a better web experience since ads and tracking scripts are disabled. Here I recommend Brave. It is based on Chromium, but puts a lot of accent on privacy and security. It also has a desktop version and all Chrome extensions work. It just like having Chrome, but without the negative pars.

Next, switch to a different search engine that cares about privacy and does not track or log your search results. Google is still the best search engine when it comes to results, but you can have the power of Google without the tracking here as well. Use StartPage as your search provider. StartPage uses Google in the background, but it anonymizes your query. It is as simple as that.

Step 3: Switch to encrypted e-mail
& chat service

If you want to talk privately with your friends or family, you will have to ditch Facebook Messenger, any of Google’s chat services (they had many) and even WhatsApp. Apple’s iMessage is the only one that if you are using you can continue without the need to switch. Facebook Messenger has a long history of spying on people’s chats and even sharing them with thrid-party for ad targeting. WhatsApp, even though is end-to-end encrypted, has mechanisms that bypass this and send the messages to Facebook’s servers in plain, if certain (undisclosed) rules are met. Furthermore, Facebook is pushing on unifying Messanger and WhatsApp, so the days of end-to-end encryption are numbered.

Instead, in order to gain full privacy for your messages, use a different service that has full end-to-end encryption. There are currently two well-known options: Telegram and Signal. Even though Telegram is more widely used, Signal is a better option since it is fully open-source and run by a non-profit. The downside with switching to a new chat service is that you will have to convince your friends to use it as well. There is no service that ads the needed security level to the other, more popular, services.

Switching to a new email provider, however, is easy and should not be a major hassle. There are quite a few options out there for encrypted email providers, with the best-known being Protonmail, Tutanota and Mailfence. Out of the three we recommend you switch to Tutanota. It offers 1GB for their free account, has integrated contacts and calendar that are also encrypted and are the cheapest, with paid plans starting at just 12 Euros per year. They also have an easy-to-use web interface and smartphone app, the possibility to send the email unencrypted if you truly want to and are based in Germany. Using them should be as easy as using GMail or Outlook.

Step 4: Use a VPN

 We are almost done. The last important change is to hide your location. Yes, you don’t use GPS unless you need too and you don’t provide location permission to most applications, but your IP gives out quite a bit of information related to where you are. It also makes it easier to track you across websites and to target ads. To solve this problem you will have to use a VPN.

There many solutions out there, some of which are free. If you want to have true privacy and speed, you will have to spend some cash. The good thing is that VPN services are usually quite cheap and the first year most providers offer big discounts. Choosing a good one depends on many aspects. I won’t get too much into jurisdictions, the 14-eyes or other things, but try to get a VPN that is based in a country which is not part of the 14, 9 or 5 eyes, has a no-log policy and is well-known. With all the services out there and with so many things to check, it can become overwhelming. We found a good VPN list that highlights all important aspects and helps you choose the right one.

From the ones we’ve used, we can recommend CyberGhost VPN or Nord VPN. Both of them offer great privacy features, many servers that are found all around the globe and good speeds.

Disadvantages & Conclusion

We can’t talk about all these solutions without presenting the disadvantages that they imply. Using Google, Facebook and the rest is convenient, easy and free. That is how they managed to gather such a big user base. While switching to a new browser can be done without any major problems, using a different chat system like Signal means convincing your friends to use it as well. Tutanota offers decent storage space in their free tier, but if you want to get as much as you have on GMail means paying, and most people are not willing to do this. Gmail and Outlook got us used to having e-mail for free.

A VPN may be the most costly thing on the list and it does not offer that much privacy, at least not on it’s own. TO be truly effective, it has to be combined with other solutions presented here. Lastly, installing a custom ROM on your smartphone can be a hassle, especially for people that are not very tech-savvy.

All-in-all, you will have to loose a bit if you want true privacy. If it is worth it depends on you and your needs. Maybe you are willing to adopt a sub-set from here and we strongly encourage it. Just keep in mind that full and untraceable privacy nowadays, when everything is interconnected, can be achieved only by leaving under a rock on top of the mountain.

P.S. If you do adopt these measures, don’t forget to at least use our affiliate links. It helps us a lot.