How to Protect Private Info Stored on Your iPhone

With all the personal information — emails and phone numbers, addresses and financial details — stored on our iPhones, you have to take iPhone privacy seriously. That's why you should always make sure to set up Find My iPhone and know what to do if your iPhone gets lost or stolen. But there are other ways to control the privacy of your data.

There have been a number of instances in which it was revealed that high-profile apps were caught uploading information from users' phones to their servers without permission. Apple now lets users control what apps have access to what data on their iPhone (and iPod touch and Apple Watch). Read on to learn about all of the options you have for controlling your private data and what apps have access to it.

Finding the Privacy Settings in iOS

iPhone Privacy Settings
image credit Jonathan McHugh/Ikon Images/Getty Images

To keep current with the privacy settings on your iPhone, it's a good idea to check the Privacy area each time you install a new app to see whether it wants access to your personal information.

How to Access iPhone Privacy Settings

To find your privacy settings:

  1. Tap the Settings app to launch it.
  2. Tap Privacy.
  3. On the Privacy screen, you'll see the elements of your iPhone that contain personal information that apps can gain access to, including Location Services, Contacts, Calendars, and more.

Protecting Location Data on iPhone

GPS Navigation
image credit: Chris Gould/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Location Services are the GPS features of your iPhone that let you find out exactly where you are, get directions, find nearby restaurants, and more. They enable many helpful features of your phone, but they could also potentially allow your movements to be tracked.

Location Services are turned On by default, but you should check out your options here. You'll want to keep some services, but you'll probably want to turn off others to protect your privacy and reduce battery and wireless data usage.

From the Privacy screen, tap Location Services and you'll see a number of options:

  • Location Services: This is the basic GPS feature of your phone. We recommend leaving it on, since you're almost certain to want at least some of these services and turning it off would disable many useful, core features of your iPhone.
  • Share My Location: Tap it and you'll be able to send the GPS location of your device to family members who are part of your Family Sharing group. Great to use when one family member needs to get directions to where another is. For other location-sharing options, check out How to Use Find My Friends For iPhone And iPad and How to Share Your Location on iPhone or iPad. iOS 8 and up
  • Apps: Next, there's a list of all the apps that would like to access your location information. They might do this in order to geotag photos (embedding the geographic location at which the photo was taken) or use your location to recommend nearby restaurants or stores. While useful, not all apps need your location to function and you may not want all apps knowing where you are. You can control access to your location by tapping each app and choosing to allow it to know where you are Always, Never, or While Using the app. Just remember that blocking the app from knowing your location could remove some of its features.
  • System Services: These low-level services provide many features to the iOS and apps. They can also suck up battery when they work in the background and use data. Here's what they do:
    • Cell Network Search: Helps you locate 3G and 4G cellular networks to connect to.
    • Compass Calibration: Enables the iPhone's built-in compass to accurately locate your direction. Used by maps apps, among other things.
    • Emergency Calls & SOS: Place calls to emergency services by clicking the Home button five times fast. When you do that, your location is sent to the emergency dispatchers to help them reach you. iOS 10.2 and up
    • Find My iPhone: Gives permission to Find My iPhone to access GPS to report the location of your lost or stolen phone so you can track it.
    • HomeKit: Learns the location of your home and shares that information with HomeKit-compatible devices to support features like automatically turning on the lights when you walk into the house. iOS 9 and up
    • Location-Based Alerts: Gives permission for your phone to receive alerts and notifications based on where you are. A feature often used by retail shop and stadiums with iBeacons.
    • Location-Based Apple Ads: Uses your location to help apps deliver ads based on where you are.
    • Location-Based Suggestions: Recommends apps you might want to use based on where your phone is. Think to recommend a retail store's app when you're in the store. iOS 10 and up
    • Motion Calibration & Distance: Used by the phone's built-in motion-tracking chip and features. If you want to use your iPhone as a pedometer, for instance, you need to keep this turned on. 
    • Setting Time Zone: Automatically updates your phone's time zone based on its geographic location.
    • Share My Location: This setting enables the location sharing mentioned above. iOS 8 and up
    • Spotlight Suggestions: The iOS's Spotlight search tool can suggest all kinds of content in its results, including apps used by others near you. Turning this on allows that feature to work. iOS 8 and 9 only
    • Wi-Fi Calling: Uses your location to support the Wi-Fi Calling feature. Only worth enabling if you use Wi-Fi Calling. iOS 9 and up
    • Wi-Fi Networking & Bluetooth: Finds nearby Wi-Fi networks and sends information about them to Apple to help the company build a database of open Wi-Fi networks. This is also used for mapping and directions purposes.
    • Significant Locations: This feature (called Frequent Locations in old versions of the iOS) tracks the places you go most often so it can learn your habits to better give you directions and recommendations. Apple also uses this information to improve the accuracy of its Maps app. You can tap it to turn off the feature, or view your recent locations and clear your history.

    In the Product Improvement section farther down the screen, you'll find:

    • iPhone Analytics: Sends data about your use of GPS features to Apple to help improve those features. Called Diagnostics & Usage in older versions of the iOS.
    • Popular Near Me: Uses your location to recommend things to you.
    • Routing & Traffic: Supplies information to the Maps app about traffic conditions based on where you are.
    • Improve Maps: Sends Maps-related data back to Apple to improve the accuracy and reliability of that tool. 

    Below that, there's a single slider:

    • Status Bar Icon: Want to know when these services or other apps are accessing your location? Move this slider to green and you'll see an icon at the top of the screen when they are.

    Protecting Data Stored in Apps on iPhone

    iphone app privacy permissions
    image credit: Jonathan McHugh/Ikon Images/Getty Images

    Many apps also want to use the data stored in your iPhone's built-in apps, like Contacts or Photos. You may want to allow this — after all, a third-party photos app needs access to your photo library in order to be useful — but it's worth checking out which apps are asking for what information.

    If you don't see anything listed on these screens, none of the apps you've installed have asked for this access. Access all of these settings from the main Privacy settings screen.

    Contacts, Calendars, and Reminders

    For these three sections, you can control what third-party apps can access your Contacts, Calendar, and Reminders apps. Move the slider white/off for apps you don't want to have access to that data. As always, remember that denying some apps access to this data could affect how they work.

    Photos & Camera

    These two options work basically the same way; the apps listed on that screen want to be able to access your Camera app and the pictures in your Photos app, respectively. Remember that some photos could have data such as the GPS location where you took them (depending on your Location Services settings) embedded in them. You might not be able to see this data, but apps can. Again, you can turn off apps' access to your photos with sliders, though doing that could limit their features. 

    Media & Apple Music

    Some apps will want to access the music and other media stored in the built-in Music app (this could be both music you've synced to the phone or gotten from Apple Music). In most cases, this is probably pretty innocuous, but it's worth checking out. This setting is called Media Library in some older versions of the iOS.

    Health

    The Health app, a centralized repository of health data from apps and devices like personal fitness trackers, was new in iOS 8. In this setting, you can control which apps have access to that data. Tap on each app to reveal a wealth of options for what data each app can access from Health.

    HomeKit

    HomeKit allows app and hardware developers to make connected devices — think the Nest thermostat or Philips Hue lights — that have deep integration with the iPhone and its built-in Home app. In this section, you can control preferences for these apps and devices, and what data they have access to.

    Advanced Features for Protecting Private Info on iPhone

    iphone privacy settings
    image copyright Jonathan McHugh/Ikon Images/Getty Images

    Some apps want access to advanced features or hardware components on your iPhone, such as your microphone. As with all of these settings, granting this access can be important for how these apps work, but you want to make sure you know which apps are able to listen to you speak.

    Bluetooth Sharing

    Since you can share files via Bluetooth using AirDrop, some apps will also want your permission to do that. Control what apps can transmit files from your iPhone or iPod touch via Bluetooth by moving the slider next to each app to green/on or white/off.

    Microphone

    Apps can have access to the microphone on your iPhone. This means that they can "listen" to what's being said around you and potentially record it. This is great for an audio note-taking app, but also has some security risks. Control what apps can use your microphone by moving the slider next to each app to green/on or white/off.

    Speech Recognition

    In iOS 10 and up, the iPhone supports much more powerful speech recognition features than ever before. This means that you can speak to your iPhone and apps to interact with them. Apps that want to take advantage of these features will show up on this screen.

    Motion & Fitness

    This setting is only available on devices that have Apple's M-series motion co-processor chip in them (the iPhone 5S and up). The M chips help these devices track your physical movements — steps taken, flights of stairs walked, etc. — so that apps can employ that data in tracking exercise, helping you get directions, and other uses. Tap this menu to get a list of the apps seeking access to this data and make your choices.

    Social Media Accounts

    If you've logged into Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, or Flickr via the iOS, use this setting to control which other apps can access these accounts. Giving apps access to your social media accounts means they may be able to read your posts or post automatically. Keep this feature on by leaving the slider at green or turn it off by moving it to white. This setting is gone from recent versions of the iOS, since logging into social media through the OS is no longer available.

    Analytics

    Apple uses this setting (formerly known as Diagnostics & Usage) to send reports of how your iPhone is working back to its engineers to help improve its products. Your information is anonymized so Apple doesn't know specifically who it's coming from. You may or may not prefer to share this information, but if you do, tap this menu and you'll see the wide range of types of data being collected. Share the ones you want by leaving the sliders set to green/on, and disable sharing by moving sliders to white/off. Block all analytics sharing by moving the Share iPhone & Watch Analytics slider to off/white.

    You also have option to review the data you've sent in the Analytics Data menu.

    Advertising

    Advertisers can track your movements around the web and what ads you see. They do this both to get information about how to sell to you and to give you ads that are more targeted to you.

    To reduce the amount of ad tracking that happens to you, move the slider to on/green in the Limit Ad Tracking option. This isn't a foolproof privacy tactic — sites and advertisers have to voluntarily respect the setting — but it will work in some cases.

    To view what information Apple uses to show you ads in Apple News and the App Store, tap View Ad Information.

    Security and Privacy Settings on the Apple Watch

    apple watch raise to wake
    image credit Chris McGrath/ Staff/Getty Images

    The Apple Watch adds a whole new level of consideration for personal data privacy and security. With it, you've got a ton of potentially important personal data sitting right there on your wrist. Here's how you protect it.

    • On iPhone: We've got good news for Apple Watch owners: the majority of the privacy and security settings you use on your iPhone apply to the Apple Watch, too. Just like with apps and other settings, the Watch simply inherits the iPhone's settings and you don't have to think about them or set them individually (in fact, you can't. You can only change the settings from the iPhone).
    • On Watch: That said, there is one kind of personal data that the Apple Watch collects that has individual settings: Motion & Fitness, the health and activity data collected by the Watch. To change those settings:
      • On the iPhone, tap the Watch app to open it.
      • Tap Privacy.
      • Tap Motion & Fitness (skip this in newer versions of the app).
      • Leave the Heart Rate and Fitness Tracking sliders set to On/green to allow other apps to access this data or move them to Off/white to block access. Which you choose will probably be determined by what fitness-tracking apps you use. If you only use Apple's Health and Activity apps, you can turn these off. To use third-party apps, leave them on.

      Other Recommended iPhone Security Measures

      setting up Touch ID on iPhone, step 1
      image credit: PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura / PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections / Getty Images

      Mastering the options in the Privacy section of the Settings app is crucial for taking control of your data, but it's not the only step. Check out these articles for other security and privacy steps we recommend you take:

      • Set a passcode: Keep people out of your iPhone unless they know this 4- or 6-character (or more) code. Learn how
      • Use Touch ID or Face ID: These security measures make passcodes even more secure by requiring your fingerprint or face scan to unlock the phone. Learn how to set up Touch ID or learn how to set up Face ID
      • Enable Find My iPhone: Not only does this let you track a lost or stolen phone, but you can use it to remotely delete all data from a phone you think you're not going to get back. Learn how