While the new year is already well underway, there is one more area that I think is important to consider for a fresh start to the year: privacy. We use our devices for so much of our daily lives and they not only contain a lot of our information, but they also store data about us. Reviewing what apps are able to access on our devices is an important part of controlling your information.
When I write about privacy and control here, I’m referring to your ability to control who can access your personal information. There has been much reported about privacy in recent years and there will certainly be much more written going forward. We regularly see articles about information brokers, data breaches, scammers, tracking, and companies selling our data. Being in control of your information lets you decide what an app or company knows about you.
On Apple’s devices, apps must ask for your permission before they are allowed access certain types of information. This is not just a courtesy. The operating system will not allow an app to access this information until you allow it. Once you’ve granted or denied permission, it’s easy to change later.
As we go through these settings, the thing to ask yourself for each app is: why does this app need this information? In many cases, it is perfectly reasonable for an app to have access, but in other cases it is not. For example, an app such as Maps needs access to your location to present a map based on where you are, but a card game probably doesn’t need this to let you play.
To review what the apps on your device can access, go to Settings and then tap Privacy.
To start, tap on Location Services in the list to see settings as well as the list of apps that have requested access to your location:
The first option you’ll see is a switch to enable or disable Location Services across all apps and services on your device. My recommendation is to leave this switch on as there are many services and apps that are quite useful (for example, weather, maps, and emergency services). However, if you never want anything to have access to your location, turn this off.
Next is Location Alerts. This allows the system to show you a map based on certain alerts, such as when a new device attempts to log into your iCloud account. I suggest leaving this set to on.
Tap on Share My Location to see the settings for Apple’s Find My service, which allows you to share your location with friends and family as well as to locate a lost device.
Find My iPhone, or on an iPad, Find My iPad shows settings that allow your device to be located if it is lost. Tap to turn this setting on or off, and to set other options.
Note: if you ever lose your device, and you’ve enabled this setting, you can find it by either using the Find My app (here), or going to the iCloud website (here). You can even cause it to play a sound so you can easily find it.
Next you’ll see My Location that shows which of your devices is used to determine your location when you share it with others, as well as the option to enable or disable this feature:
If you have more than one device (such as both an iPhone and an iPad), you can choose which device is used to determine your location when sharing with your friends or family. You will either see This Device, if the current device is being used, or you’ll see the name of the device being used and an option to use another device instead.
Finally, if you’ve already shared your location with friends or family, they will be shown. Tap on an entry to see the contact details. Scroll to the bottom of the page and tap Stop Sharing My Location if you no longer want to share with this particular person.
Note: you may wonder why you’d want to share your location. It can be handy to find people when traveling with a large group or when keeping tabs on a loved one during an emergency, as I wrote about here. Use the Find My app (here) to set this up.
When you’re finished reviewing the Find My settings, tap Back at the top left of the screen to go back to the Location Services page.
Next you’ll see a list of all the apps that have requested access to your location and the current setting. Tap on an app to change the settings.
Under Allow Location Access you’ll see the following options:
- Never: the app does not have access to your location. Further, the app is not allowed to request it because you have already said “no”.
- Ask Next Time: the app does not have access to your location but can ask for it the next time you use the app.
- While Using the App: the app has access to your location only while you’re actively using it. For example, while you’re using the Maps app, it will be able to access your location to show you where you are. As soon as you leave the app, the app can no longer access your location. This is the most common setting for apps that use location.
- Always: the app can access your location at any time. For example, and app can start in the background and access your location. It’s rare for an app to legitimately need this level of access. Note: you may not see this option, as apps can tell the system they will never request it.
At the bottom of these options you will see the app’s explanation for why it has requested access. For example, the Ace Hardware app says: “To best locate a store close to you.”
Precise Location determines whether an app can find your exact location or just your general area. For example, Maps needs your precise location to show where you are, whereas a weather app probably only needs to know the general area to provide an accurate weather report.
Tap Back at the top left of the screen to go back to the Location Services screen.
At the bottom of the app list is System Services. These device services are provided by Apple and are not used for marketing or ads. To read more about how these are used, click here.
When you’re finished reviewing Location Services, tap Privacy in the upper left to go back to the Privacy page:
The Tracking setting determines whether apps are allowed to ask to track you across different websites and other apps. If you turn this off, apps cannot ask you this nor can they get information from the system that helps them do this tracking. I leave this setting off because I don’t want any app to do this.
This type of tracking allows apps to more easily know what other apps and websites you visit. It often helps them create a profile of you that supposedly allows them to present ads that are more relevant. But, these profiles are often sold to or used by other companies who add even more data about you.
Other Privacy Settings
The rest of the list contains information and services to which apps can request access. It is worth going through each of these and again asking why does this app need this information. I won’t cover all of these, but there are some notable categories to consider.
An app should have a good reason to access to your contacts list. With this access, it can read all your contacts and the details of each. It could store this information on its servers and use it in ways you might not expect. I generally do not allow access unless I trust the app and know exactly what it is going to do with this information.
Your Photos Library not only contains pictures and videos, but each may also contain where and when it was taken. You may not want apps to have unfettered access to all this personal information. Tap on an app to change its access:
There are three options:
- Selected Photos: allows you to select only a subset of your photos that the app can access. This prevents the app from accessing any other photos. Tap Edit Selected Photos at the bottom of the page to change these.
- All Photos: the app has access to every photo and video in your library.
- None: the app cannot access any of your photos.
Note: once you grant an app access to your photo library, it can read the contents at any time until you change the setting.
Also Note: apps can request that you choose photos to share without asking for permission to your library. In this case, the system shows you your library (the app cannot see this), and you choose what to share. The app only gets these photos when chosen and does not have access to your library. Not all apps have been updated to use this approach, so many still ask for permission to access your library.
Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows devices to communicate with each other. It’s often used for headphones, but can also be used by printers, home automation devices, and more.
Bluetooth can also be used to attempt to find your location by looking for other known Bluetooth devices nearby (such as in a retail store). Some apps use this technique to track your location even when you deny them location access.
Unless you know that an app needs Bluetooth access, I would not allow access. If an app plays sound through headphones, it does not need to ask for Bluetooth permission, as the system automatically handles audio for apps.
Camera and Microphone
Your device’s camera and microphone are common worries when thinking about privacy. There are perfectly valid reasons for an app to use these: video conferencing apps need to have access to both in order to work. Some apps, however, will ask for this access when it’s unclear what they will do with it. In those cases, do not allow the access. As you’ll see below, it’s easy to know when the camera or microphone is being used, and what app is using it.
Starting in iOS 14 there are new indicators to help you understand when certain features on your device are being used by an app. This helps alert you to possible privacy concerns.
Camera & Microphone
When an app is using your camera or microphone, a small dot will be displayed in the status bar at the top right of your screen. You’ll see an orange dot for the microphone, and a green dot for the camera.
If it’s obvious why these are being used (such as a FaceTime call), then you don’t need to take any further action. But, if you’re not sure why you’re seeing those indicators, then Control Center will show you which app is the culprit.
On an iPhone with a home button, swipe up from the bottom of the screen; on an iPhone without a home button or on an iPad, swipe down from the top-right of the screen:
At the top of Control Center you’ll see the app that is using the camera and/or microphone.
If apps are using either of these when you haven’t explicitly asked them to, it may be time to head back to Settings and turn off their access, or maybe even delete the app.
Using copy and paste is a great way to use information from one app in another. Unfortunately, some apps read the data you’ve copied when you don’t ask them to. This means they might be able to get information that was never meant for them. For example, if you’ve copied an email address and then used it one app, that email address is still in the clipboard when you switch to another app.
When an app reads from the clipboard, a notification will appear at the top of the screen. This happens both when you decide to paste something into an app and also when an app reads the clipboard without you asking:
If you see this happening in an app when you have not asked it to get something from the clipboard, then you should ask yourself why the app is doing this. If there isn’t a good reason, then I suggest deleting the app, as it may be trying to get information you don’t want to share.
Stay In Control
There are so many great apps and services that use the information we provide responsibly, whether it’s Lyft using our location so the driver can find us, a birthday card app using our photos to add some nice graphics, or FaceTime using the camera and microphone so we can stay in touch with our loved ones. Unfortunately, not all apps are as responsible.
Staying in control of your data has become even more important as information brokers, trackers, scammers, and the like look for ways to get whatever information they can. I hope this post helps you stay in control of your information. And remember: ask yourself ”why does this app need this?”
Cover photo by Georg Bommeli on Unsplash
What great information, Rob. So much I didn’t know about apps and what access they have to your information. And now I know what that orange dot is all about. Thanks for sharing all of this.
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Thanks, Hugh. I am so glad the post was helpful.
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I just spent 10 minutes with your article. This is awesome stuff. I made a lot of changes and I feel much more comfortable with what my iPhone is sharing. Nicely done. Keep the helpful advice coming.
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Thanks, Alan. I’m glad it was helpful.