Stay Off the Grid: Ways to Safeguard Your Smartphone from the NSA

If you’ve been following the latest developments following the unearthing of the NSA Prism program slides used by the National Security Agency (NSA)  alongside its British counterpart, you must have learned by now that spy agencies are gathering personal data sent by “leaky” smartphones.

In line with the provision of documents provided by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica have all reported that the agency and Britain’s GHCQ accumulated data transmitted “in the clear” by the iconic “Angry Birds” game and various social media channels — Facebook, Flickr, Flixster, Google Maps, LinkedIn, Photobucket and Twitter.

Not only were the agencies receiving a huge amount of unencrypted personal data across open cellular networks by the apps themselves, they were also able to intercept even more sensitive particulars — including a person’s religious beliefs, sexual orientation and marital status — from third-party advertising networks that planted ads in smartphone apps.

In this case, we have no one else to blame but ourselves as security experts have warned us over the years of the hazards of using smartphone apps and how our personal data flows back and forth through open channels. In the end, the only thing NSA, GCHQ and the recently uncovered Canadian spy agency — Communications Security Establishment (CSE), had to do was switch on their receivers and intercept.

If you’re not cool with having any of these spy agencies keep tabs on your personal information, here are some simple steps that you can take to make it a little harder for these organisations to collect information on you while you browse through your Facebook account or play games on your phone.

Set your phone to airplane mode while playing games.

You see, most games don’t actually require an internet connection to run, only their ad networks do. By taking yourself offline, ads will not be able to show up on your phone nor can they send out your personal data, whether by the game itself or through third-party apps. Another plus point of being on airplane mode while gaming is that it also allows your game to run a little better since the processor isn’t busy trying to load ads.

Always use a virtual private network (VPN) when connected to the Internet.

A VPN works by encrypting all forms of data traffic to and from your phone, tablet or computer by funnelling it through a VPN provider’s server. Although a VPN cannot stop apps and ads from gathering and transmitting your personal data, it gives you added protection by concealing data, making it a lot harder for spies or hackers to eavesdrop on those transmissions.

Refrain from posting on social media accounts while connected to mobile data networks.

It can be hard to resist the temptation of making real-time posts but the best practice is to wait until you’re connected to a secure, password-protected home or when you’re on a workplace WiFi network. To be safe, its actually best not to post to social media account from your smartphone at all. Instead, you should connect to the social media service only when you’re using a desktop or laptop PC via a secure HTTPS connection. More on this in the next item.

Install and use HTTPS Everywhere.

HTTPS Everywhere is a browser plugin that can be used for Chrome, Opera and Firefox browsers and the best part is that its free for all to use. As of now, the makers — Electronic Frontier Foundation — have not released a smartphone version as yet so wait till you have access to your desktop computer or laptop and HTTPS Everywhere will ensure that your connection is secure.

Switch off WiFi, GPS and geolocation on your smartphone.

What does WiFi, GPS and geolocation have in common with each other? All three can be used to easily pinpoint your location in real-time so be very prudent when using them. All you have to do is go into each app’s settings and turn off geolocation, especially for apps which are able to take photos. This way, spies and hackers are unable to use app data to find out your current location nor track where you have been.

Turn off mobile data connections.

If your job doesn’t require to receive constant updates while on-the-go, switch off your cellular data and do not connect to the internet unless you are in a secure WiFi network area. By doing so, you get to conserve your battery life while still being able to send and receive text messages and phone calls.

Stop using the smartphone.

This advice is for the truly paranoid — since all mobile phones have built-in tracking devices, your safest bet is to go back to basics and downgrade your iPhone or Android to a basic phone a.k.a. “dumb” phone. Getting your location data and personal data out of something that can’t run Facebook or play “Angry Birds” is going to be a tough nut to crack.

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