How to set up your Android phone for ultimate privacy

Here's how to replace all of those data-hungry apps and services with ones that don't need to know so much about you.

android privacy
Derek Walter

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that your smartphone is the most personal device you have. The fact it’s always with you, however, sure does generate a lot of information about your habits.

Your location history, Google searches, web browsing habits, app usage, and even recordings of your voice talking to the Google Assistant.

Yes, your phone and the Google services powering it are incredibly useful in many tangible ways. And if you use a strong password and two-factor authentication, your information is likely safer on Google’s servers than just about anywhere else.

But it’s not paranoia to take stock from time to time of just how much you’re handing over to Google or if you’d rather not place all your digital privacy eggs in the same basket. Here are some simple tips about how you can stay in control of all that critical information and ensure that privacy isn’t something you have to surrender.

Get right with Google

Since you’re on Android, using a Google account is essential in order to buy apps and use the company’s suite of services. Even the privacy-focused Blackphone puts Google services front and center.

If your goal is to maybe do a little de-Googling because you don’t want the company to know every thing about you, the first place to start is the My Activity account center. This is essentially the dashboard for every instance where your activity touches Google servers. The site is quite mobile friendly, so you can attack all these details from your phone or tablet as well as on the desktop.

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My Activity is the home for everything Google remembers about your daily interactions.

The amount of information is a little staggering, especially if this is your first time there. For example, touch “Android” and you’ll see a timeline of the interactions from your phone, such as which apps you’ve used on your phone, tablet, or Android TV. Same goes for Chrome, Search, or Play. There’s also a search function, which is surprisingly a little hit and miss at finding your stuff.

The key to this section is that you can also clean things out. Touch the overflow (three vertical dots) button at the top right and you’ll have an option to delete details by a certain timeframe. You can also opt for the nuclear option and delete everything if you want a fresh start.

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You can delete activity from a specific time period or send everything to the digital trash bin at once.

The most interesting addition to this section is found if you use the Google Assistant, which is what powers the artificial intelligence smarts inside the Pixel, Google Home, and Allo. Every voice interaction with Google is recorded, and you can play it back.

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You can play back and also delete your voice interactions with the Google Assistant.

It’s a little creepy to know your voice recordings are saved for all time. So you can delete this if you’d like. However, you’re better off acknowledging that this is one of the tradeoffs we make for having an artificial genie always at your disposal. It remembers.

This is where the “delete activity by” button can come in handy. It allows you to delete content from a specific application. Touch Filter by date & product and then select Assistant or any other app you want to seek out. This way all your voice searches, Google searches, or other interactions are sent away at once.

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You can wipe away your voice commands all at once.

Returning here often, just to see what's going on, is also a good idea as a way of ensuring your account is secure and nothing suspicious has taken place.

Location, location, location

So much of how your phone interacts with different apps and services is through your location. Think Google Maps, Google search suggestions, Uber, and other services.

One area you should check is your Google location history. This is a detailed timeline of everywhere your Android device has gone. It’s actually useful, as it’s helped me remember where I went on a certain day. However, it’s easy to understand that some may not want this saved for all time.

Head to Maps > Your timeline and you’ll see what Google has on you. Your location is saved in an attractive timeline by each day, and it even integrates with Google Photos to show which pictures you took by location.

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Every move you make is traceable inside of Google Maps.

You can tame this behavior, however. Head to Settings > Personal > Location. From here, you can see which apps have recently accessed your location. There’s also a switch to turn this off if there are particular apps you don’t want included or are turning into a battery drain.

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Find out which apps and devices are using Google’s location services.

Keep in mind that shutting off all location-based tracking means no more regional tips from Google Now, gift card offers from Android Pay, or other location-based alerts. You’re also likely to get far fewer Opinion Rewards surveys since many of these come from your location.

You can also get more specific and turn on or off location services for specific apps or devices if you want more control. Phones, tablets, and PCs that have used your Google account tend to hang this feature around a while, and for security your best bet is to ensure you’ve wiped them properly before resale.

Go outside the circle

Along with tightening the reins on your Google account, you can also opt to go dark with some other apps and services you use.

Just like on the desktop, you can browse the web with Chrome in Incognito mode. It’s even easier if you have a Pixel as it’s one of the app shortcuts (press hand hold the Chrome icon). This doesn’t save any of your Google searches or web history to your account, however it doesn’t mean that you’re completely invisible. Your internet service provider and other information is still visible to the server you visit.

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Go Incognito mode if you want to browse without much of a trace.

For even stronger private browsing, there’s a toolset for using Tor on Android. Orbot uses Tor to create a proxy and scramble your Internet traffic. You then use the Orbox browser to surf the web securely. It’s so secure, it won’t even let you take a screenshot of the browsing section.

More technical users can also dive into node configuration, bridges, and relays.

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Tor browsing isn’t just for the desktop.

If you want a more conventional solution, you can always opt out of the Chrome ecosystem by going with Firefox and a different search engine. The best mostly-private option is DuckDuckGo. Not only is it a solid search engine, but none of your search history or other details are saved by the company. 

On the email front, you can get by with some more private alternatives to Gmail. One of the best is ProtonMail. It’s a popular, encrypted email service with the servers based in Switzerland. You’re not going to get all the cool tricks like travel itineraries in your Google Now feed, but you can rest assured that your email account is securely hosted.

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DuckDuckGo, Signal, and many other apps are good choices if you want to elevate your privacy.

The other area that gets a lot of attention is messaging. There are many good, private messaging options for you. Personally I’m a fan of Signal, as I find it to have the best feature set and a robust development pace. It uses end-to-end encryption, which means that only the sender and recipient are able to see the message.

Privacy and security are just as much a mindset as they are about using specific apps, however. The real key is to think about apps that you interact with and what privacy tradeoffs you may be making for their services. In many cases it’s worth it. Yet as technology creeps ever more into our lives, it’s best from time to time to decide just how much is enough.

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