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All the ways your phone is tracking you

Dec 13, 2016 · 3 min read

All the ways your phone is tracking you

As time goes on and technology increases, we are becoming more and more tethered to our phones. In fact, we use our phones more for everyday tasks and socialization than for actual calling.

In fact, our phones are generally headed more in the direction of a personalized assistant than a way to communicate by voice to people in far locations. This is not a bad thing. However, as there are two sides to every story, there is some caution we should practice.

The sensors tracking everything you do

The problem comes with the increase of sensors in our phones. Sensors are any physical components in your phone that measures physical aspect and then converts that into a signal—data.

These sensors come in various purposes and themes.

First of all are the sensors of movement: accelerometer and gyroscope. The accelerometer measures your physical movement and orientation. The gyroscope measures your angular rotation across the three axes and, coupled with the accelerometer, gives a very accurate picture of your movements in general. With this, anyone reading the data can tell whether you are sitting, standing still, walking, bending forward enough, etc.

There’s also the proximity sensor which can recognize when your phone is moved toward or away from your face when you make a call (which is why your screen is off when you’re talking on it). Beyond that, there’s the ubiquitous GPS chip to plot your exact location on a map and a magnetometer to detect magnetic North. And of course, there’s the camera’s array of sensors and the microphone.

The sensors also include the environmental type that measure temperature, pressure and light.  The newest type of sensor is the fingerprint sensor first popularized with the iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S7. And it is more common for new phones to have sensors related to health and fitness, such as a pedometer to measure your steps, a heart rate monitor, and more.

With data from just one sensor, the amount of information that any program or company can tell about you is limited. However, the problem comes into play when you combine the data from all these sensors—and the story they tell is pretty accurate.

For example, Tony Beltramelli, a Computer Science Master’s student at the IT University of Copenhagen, showed how software on a smartwatch could use the sensors available to determine the wearer’s passwords and PINs.

Even scarier is the fact that many of these apps are recording data about you constantly, whether you are aware of it or not. For example, Google keeps your voice searches for a long time after you’ve initially made them. The same company also records all your steps and movements (which I’m sure you’ve experienced with a few ads or suggestions from the company). Apple Health tracks all your movements, even though you may have another app for that.

Who’s using the data, and for what purposes?

In actuality, the sensors are not the problems here. The real problem is the number of apps who have access to that sensor data.

When you install an app, you may not be aware of the type of permissions you are allowing it.  Google has been given permission to track your movements, and so has Apple Health even though you may not remember it.

If you give an app permission to your sensors, or all of your sensors, and another permission to use it as the company sees fit, that can be a big problem. The app may be able to tell everything about you—your health, your movements, your likes and dislikes, when you are sitting, standing, or more.

Related: Top 7 Android Privacy & Security Apps

We should therefore first of all make sure that only apps that need permission for a sensor should be granted that permission. That means Google Maps will need access to your GPS, fitness apps have permission to your pedometer, and so on.

But if you install a zombie-killing game, why does it need access to your camera, or environmental sensors, or others at all?

The truth is that there is probably no nefarious end-goal to these companies’ collecting massive amounts of data on you. It is, plain and simply, for marketing purposes. However, there are concerns of privacy and security as more and more private companies handle your personal data.

In order to curtail that, you need to be vigilant in what kind of apps you download into your phone and what permissions you give them.

Christina Craig
Christina Craig successVerified author

Christina is a community manager and the heart, the voice and the soul of NordVPN. She is always up for a conversation with our community of users and blog readers.

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