This article was originally published on October 27, 2017.
New phones are exciting. They bring new features, make existing features more powerful and get us excited about spending half a month’s wage for the screen we will stare at for the next twelve months—before it breaks or the battery dies.
Privacy is incredibly important when it comes to selecting a phone. It very much matters what data a phone collects and who can see it.
The announcement of iOS 11 brought some noticeable privacy improvements. You can now limit an app’s access to your location to only “While Using the App” and any app that uses your location after you close the screen will be shamed by a blue alert bar at the top of the phone.
Safari also became slightly more privacy-friendly. In an improvement to iOS 9’s external adblockers, you can now prevent cross-site tracking directly in the settings menu.
iOS11 is a significant step in the right direction, but there are still a lot of features that we want in our smartphones.
1. Multiple app installs
Currently, we maintain different identities on our phones by either having two phones or doing everything under the same name and number. How great would it be to install an app twice and log in once with your private details, and another time with our professional or artistic identity?
Some apps, like Twitter and Gmail, already allow you to switch accounts. But for those apps that do not, why should the phone’s operating system stand in the way?
2. The ability to detect IMSI catchers
IMSI catchers, also called stingrays, are devices predominantly used to conduct mass surveillance. They pose as fake cell-phone towers and trick your phone into connecting to them, before eavesdropping on your text messages and phone calls—as well as determining your location.
While previously only accessible to military and police organizations, IMSI catchers have become increasingly affordable.
While IMSI catchers aren’t trivial to detect, there’s a lot your phone could do to help. It could show the list of towers you are currently connected to, plus allow you to cross-reference those towers with a list provided by your phone operator.
It would also be useful to be able to evade common strategies employed by IMSI catchers—such as downgrading your connection to obsolete 2G connections whose encryption can be cracked.
3. Location spoofing
Some apps require us to provide our location to function efficiently. But why do they need to know our exact GPS location, as opposed to an approximate one supplied by the user? We don’t need to let Uber know the exact house we’re in to get a quote.
4. A fake contact list/camera/microphone
Why do we tolerate an app that refuses to function when we deny it access to our contact list (looking at you, Whatsapp) or camera? What if there was a third option to “share blank’? With this option, we could let the app believe we gave it access to our contact list, but all it gets is a blank list, a black screen from the camera or silence from the microphone.
For the camera and microphone, limiting access to just an hour would be a great start also. That way we don’t have to remember to remove access again after use.
5. A hardware switch for Bluetooth/GPS/microphone/camera
For those extra-paranoid users (like me), it would be great to switch sensitive sensors off completely. While we don’t expect such a fantastic move from “Don’t-touch-the-hardware” Apple, a feature like this from another brand could at least get some few privacy-conscious users to switch supplier.
At the very least, give us a light that signals whether the camera or microphone is currently in use!
6. Selective Photo access
Why is it always “all or nothing” with access to the photo album? Why are we not able to select a single or few images from the album and share only those with the app?
The UI could be simple: We grant the app “selective permissions only,” and every time the app wants access to a photo album we can select which images we want to share.
Be selective and in control of your phone
Privacy does not mean to hide information and remain anonymous; it means to be in control of which information we share with our friends, apps, and our device.
We must be in tight control over what information our device can gather, who can see the data and where the data goes. A good operating system for phones should give us control, rather than taking it.
Also, check out our guide to mobile security.