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Draw the Line

How to limit apps from exploiting your personal data.

Privacy in the time of data breaches seems illusory. A look at the Archive file in your Facebook account will certainly have you believe so. It has your complete contact list, call history, message history and more. Shockingly, this is not done against your consent. The list of permissions granted to the Facebook app (when you download it on an Android smartphone) includes access to almost everything - calendar, camera, contacts, location, microphone, phone, SMS and storage. And this is just Facebook. Most other apps on our phones ask for similar permissions.

In the rush to get that latest 'recommended' app on our phone, we tend to overlook privacy concerns. Apps by default seek access to hardware as well as our data; most times, not within reason. It is understandable that a navigation app like Google Maps requires your current location to work effectively, but why should a flashlight app need access to your storage, location, microphone and contacts?

In June 2017, the IMDEA Networks Institute in Spain revealed that more than 70 per cent of the smartphone apps report personal data to third-party tracking companies. So, how do you prevent apps from accessing and then misusing personal data? Start by reviewing the permissions for every app installed on your smartphone - keep the genuine ones and revoke the unnecessary ones.

Here's a detailed guide on how to take control of the access an app gets on your smartphone.

FOR IPHONES: The privacy setting on the iOS platform has been designed to keep users' devices, data and Apple ID secure. It helps in controlling what you share and with whom. The 'Privacy' option under 'Settings' has a list of permissions apps usually seek access to. This includes location services, contacts, calendars, reminders, photo, microphone, Bluetooth sharing, speech recognition, camera and more. For instance: when you tap on 'Location Services', apps that can and are accessing your location are displayed. Simply select from options 'never', 'while using the app' and 'always' to manage permissions. In the writer's case, there were over 50 apps that wanted to access current location. It is advisable to deny location access to most apps; and for apps that need location turned on, set the option to only while using the app. Under microphone, camera, contacts and others, there is a toggle that allows you to grant or revoke access to apps.

FOR ANDROID PHONES: Things are slightly different on the Android platform because of the custom software and interface that handset manufacturers have been adding to the smartphones. On smartphones running Android 8.0 operating system, changing the permission settings is simple. The 'Settings' app has the 'App & Notifications' tab which has a dedicated 'App Permission' option. It shows all the permissions applications usually have access to. The list is long; includes body sensors, calendar, camera, contacts, location, microphone, phone, SMS, storage and additional information including car information, read instant messages, request to access Twitter account and write instant messages. Each option shows a list of apps that have access to a particular feature.

On Xiaomi smartphones, permissions can be found under the 'security' setting. You can also type 'permission' in the search bar of settings. If your smartphone is running on the older version of Android OS, you will have to check permissions by going into each app. Go to application manager in settings, and you will see all the apps on your smartphone listed there. When denying permissions to some apps, a prompt stating that the app 'may not function properly' if the permission is revoked will appear. That is fine as you can always turn on the permission only when using the app.

When downloading newer apps, it is wise to check permissions beforehand. On iPhones and Android smartphones, a notification that the app wants to access a particular feature on your phone pops up. You can allow or deny right then and also change the preference from 'Settings' later.