How to protect your privacy on Android devices

It seems we are heading towards a surveillance based “Orwellian” society as described by George Orwell in his book 1984. We are perpetually being watched online by virtually everyone – government, hackers, advertising agencies, ISPs and big tech companies. They garner all sorts of personal data from your mobile device, often without your consent. In most countries, ISPs even keep track of your browsing activities and sell them to advertisers without your permission. The US legislators recently voted to legally allow ISPs to snoop on customers web-browsing activities, the UK is doing same under the Snooper’s Charter law and Australia has proposed a new law to weaken encryption. In fact, surveillance has become the business model of the Internet. Because we don’t get to see how this plays out in reality, we often fail to appreciate the enormity of the risk. Imagine being in your home and suddenly realizing that over ten people are peeping into your windows and continuously prying on your activities – it’s that serious.

As mobile devices become the most popular means of accessing the internet (Android accounting for 73% market share), privacy concerns are also growing. To make matters worse, the Android operating system itself was designed primarily to collect data about you and use it to deliver targeted ads. A lot of users are concerned about these security issues and wants to know how they can protect their online privacy while using Android devices.

Options available

There are lots of ways you can protect your privacy, the most prominent option is to use the Tor anonymous browser for Android known as Orfox. It’s the most private mobile browser out there. When combined with apps such as Orbot and orWall, greater privacy is even achieved as it forces apps to connect through the Tor network, enabling you to access the Internet incognito. But attempting to use this technology can be a daunting and complicated task for an average user. For most folks the main hitch with Tor is that its connections tend to be annoyingly slow. It’s probably not the simple, broad solution you’re looking for.

Another popular privacy solution is web proxies – most of which are free.  A web proxy acts as an intermediary between your gadget and a website. But it’s not all rosy; majority of the free web proxies out there cannot be trusted, according to a research by Christian Haschek. If you’re already using one, you can confirm its credibility by testing it with this free tool.

For most people, the best internet privacy solution is a trustworthy virtual private network (VPN) service. In case you don’t know what it is, a VPN – as the name implies – helps you create a personal encrypted virtual tunnel through the Internet. If you access the Internet from this tunnel, it is difficult for anyone including your ISP to eavesdrop on your online activities. VPNs also help you disguise your location anywhere in the world and unlock geographically restricted services such as Hulu and Netflix – although the latter is beginning to block VPNs from carrying their traffic.

 How to obtain and setup one

It is relatively easy to obtain and setup a VPN on Android. Interestingly, there are lots of VPN service providers within the Android community. Most are available through the Google Play Store as a free app download.

However, just like most free services, a completely free VPN may not have the right incentive to truly offer the desired level of protection – not to say that free VPNs are essentially flawed.  An easy way to boost your chances of having a VPN that lives up to expectation is to pay for one. Most are based on a monthly or yearly subscription. Look out for those with lots of bandwidth and multiple sites. It’s best to try them out under the “free trial” option before subscribing.

Android also has built-in support for certain types of VPN which you can use to connect to an existing network if you already know the login details. This is especially useful when you want to securely connect to your internal corporate network from the outside world, without installing any third-party apps.

Trust factors to consider

A fundamental problem with VPN service providers is trust. Some VPN companies are also involved in the very shady privacy practices that you are running away from in the first place, especially mobile VPN providers.  A recent research has shown that there are more fraudulent Android VPNs than good ones in Google Play. To be on the safe side, always check your provider’s terms of services and avoid those that keep logs of your online activities. Those that keep logs are likely to sell them to advertisers or turn them over to law enforcement on demand. What you want is a VPN service with the best chance of working as advertised. Some VPNs are so flawed that they leak your Internet address. One way to know if your VPN is leaking your Internet address is to test it with this online tool, if you see your ISP’s Internet address, you can be sure your VPN is leaking.

Limitations and downsides

Although VPNs accomplish a lot, it isn’t a one-stop solution to all your privacy concerns. It also has its limitations and downsides. Using a VPN on your mobile device helps to protect data in transit on the internet, but it does not protect that resident on your device. Similarly, your mobile phone service provider will still know your location by keeping track of the towers your device communicates with.  A VPN may slow down the speed of your internet connection; it is usually advisable to subscribe to a VPN service that is close to where you actually live.  A VPN cannot improve your security if your mobile device is already compromised with malware or fraudulent apps. If you care so much about privacy, it’s best to keep the number of apps as low as possible, and try to avoid giving them unnecessary permissions to information you consider private.

A version of this article appeared on vpnMentor

Categories: Digital Privacy

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