What to Do on iPhone to Stop Government Spying

Protect your privacy, from Uncle Sam as well as the neighborhood pickpocket

Person in hood using a smartphone
image credit: xijian/E+/Getty Images

Is your iPhone being used to spy on you? In an increasingly chaotic and frightening world, more people than ever are concerned about government surveillance, so one of the first places you should put your focus is the device you use all day, every day.

Spying and phone tapping is easier than ever thanks to the wealth of data captured and stored on devices like your phone. From our communications to the locations we visit and the social networks we frequent, our phones contain a lot of sensitive information about us and our activities.

Fortunately, devices like the iPhone also contain features that help us protect our digital privacy and prevent government spying.

Use a VPN for Web Browsing

TunnelBear iPhone VPN app

Web browsing is an activity we all do on our phones, so it's one of the first things you should safeguard to help prevent iPhone spying. An easy way to protect your web browsing privacy is with a VPN.

VPNs are virtual private networks, so they route all of traffic from your phone through a private tunnel, and can use encryption to scramble all that data. If anyone manages to pick up what you're doing, they'll get a handful of garbage that'll be impossible to decipher.

While there have been reports of governments being able to crack some VPNs, using one will provide more protection than not. You need two things to use a VPN with your iPhone: a VPN subscription from a VPN service provider and a method for plugging the provider's information into your phone (like a VPN app).

The iPhone has VPN capabilities built in, but there are also numerous third-party VPN options in the App Store, like ExpressVPN, IPVanish, and NordVPN.

Always Use Private Browsing

Private Browsing Mode in Safari for iPhone

Every time you browse the web, whether through a VPN or not, Safari identifies and records your browsing history, information which can be relatively easy to access if someone gets into your phone.

Avoid leaving a trail of web browsing data by using Private Browsing Mode. This feature is built-in to Safari and most other web browsers, and ensures that the moment you close the tab, no proof that you visited those sites will remain on your iPhone.

To access Private Browsing Mode in Safari, tap the two-squared icon on the bottom right, followed by Private. Any tab you open in this greyed mode is considered private and won't be logged in your browsing history.

Make sure to close out of the taps when you're done to clear them away. Safari keeps them open even when you close the app or switch to normal mode, so you must tap the x at the top of each tab you want to close for good.

Use an Encrypted Chat App

WhatsApp, Messenger, and Signal apps for iPhone
WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Signal.

Eavesdropping on conversations can net a ton of useful information — unless your conversations can't be cracked. To do that, you need to use a chat app with end-to-end encryption.

This means that every step of a chat — from your phone to the chat server to the recipient's phone — is encrypted. Apple's iMessage platform works this way, as do a number of other chat apps. iMessage is a great option since Apple has taken a strong stand against creating a backdoor for the government to access conversations.

Just make sure that no one in your iMessage group chats is using Android or another operating system, because cross-platform messaging breaks encryption for the entire iMessage conversation.

If you need to text someone who doesn't use iMessage, but you still want to protect iPhone from spying, use an app that forces encryption no matter the platform it's running on. WhatsApp, Facebook's Secret Conversations, Signal, Telegram Messenger, and Viber are a few examples.

Ditch Unsecure Email

ProtonMail New Message window

Encryption is clearly the way to go to combat iPhone spying, but encrypting your texts, calls, and web browsing isn't enough if you're still using an unsecure email provider.

Upgrade your email service to a tier that supports encryption, or drop your email provider altogether and stick with a service that promises that it won't (or can't, due to encryption) reveal your emails to governing authorities.

There are lots of really great email providers out there, but not all of them can make such bold promises. Plus, of the encrypted providers, some have even had to shut down due to government pressure.

If you're in need of a super-secure email service, stick with one like ProtonMail or Hushmail.

Disposable email addresses are often really secure, too — some even deleting emails every day or every few hours — but make sure you read the service's security features to be sure.

Sign Out of Social Networks

Social media app icons on iPhones

Social networks are increasingly used for communication and organizing travel and events. Government access to your social networks will reveal your network of friends, activities, movements, and plans.

The best way to prevent spying is to prevent posting things on social media that can be used to track your whereabouts and habits. However, it's also important to actually log out of your social media accounts when you're done using them, because remote access to your phone can reveal data that normally only you have access to.

Lock Down Your iPhone

iPhone surveillance doesn't occur just over the internet. It can also happen when police, immigration and customs agents, and other governmental entities get physical access to your iPhone. Securing your phone from physical access, then, is equally important.

Set a passcode on your iPhone to ensure that if anyone has it, they'll need to get the password from you before they can actually see anything you're storing on it.

Settings, Touch ID & Passcode, Change Passcode screens on iPhone

Just open Settings and look for the Face ID & Passcode or Touch ID & Passcode option. You can choose a 4-digit or 6-digit passcode, a custom alphanumeric code, or Face ID if your phone supports it.

The more complex your passcode, the harder it is to break into. However, make sure to use the most complex passcode you can remember, but refrain from writing it down or it will increase the likelihood that someone finds it.

See these examples of strong passwords if you need help understanding how to make a complex password for your iPhone.

Turn Off Touch ID (In Some Cases)

You might think that using a fingerprint-based login feature like Touch ID is too powerful to hack because, after all, it requires your physical fingerprint. However, authority figures in your country might have no problem forcing you to provide it.

If you're in a situation where you think you could be arrested, it's smart to turn off Touch ID so that you can't be forced to put your finger on the iPhone's sensor. Instead, you can rely on a complex passcode to protect your data, which is much harder to pull from you than your fingerprint.

Settings and Touch ID & Passcode screens on iPhone

Follow these steps to learn where the Touch ID settings are so that you can disable the fingerprint reader on your iPhone. What you're looking for in the Settings app is the Touch ID & Passcode area, or Face ID & Passcode to disable Face ID.

Turn on Self-Destruct Mode

The iPhone includes a feature that automatically deletes its data if an incorrect passcode is entered 10 times. This is a great feature if you want to keep the information on it private even at the cost of losing everything.

Settings, Touch ID & Passcode, Enable Erase Data screens

This option is in the Settings app under Face ID & Passcode or Touch ID & Passcode. Just enable Erase Data to turn it on.

Too many attempts to unlock your iPhone with the wrong passcode can lead to it being disabled. Learn how to fix the "iPhone Is Disabled" error.

Set Auto-Lock to 30 Seconds

The longer your iPhone is unlocked, the longer you give someone unrestricted access to your data. Aside from manually locking your iPhone when you're finished using it, the best way to ensure that it's locked as soon as possible is to set the auto-lock feature to 30 seconds.

Settings, Display & Brightness, Auto-Lock screens on iPhone

The auto-lock option for iPhone is found in the Settings app. Go to Display & Brightness > Auto-Lock, and then tap 30 Seconds.

Making your phone auto-lock sooner rather than later is also a really great battery-saving tip.

Disable All Lock Screen Access 

Apple makes it easy to access data and features from the iPhone's lock screen. In most situations, this is great — a few swipes or tap take you exactly where you want to go without unlocking your phone.

However, if your phone isn't in your physical control, these features can give others access to your data and apps. Turning off lock screen access will, of course, dumb down your phone a bit because you won't be using it at its fullest potential, but it will also increase overall privacy and security.

Settings and Touch ID & Passcode screens on iPhone

To make your phone more secure by turning off lock screen access, find the Face ID & Passcode or Touch ID & Passcode option in the Settings app, and then tap the button next to the features you want to edit (toward the bottom of the screen), such as these:

  • Today View
  • Notification Center
  • Return Missed Calls
  • Reply with Message
  • Wallet

Only Open the Camera From The Lockscreen

If you're taking pictures with other people around, like at an event, try your best to avoid unlocking your phone. Should someone grab it while unlocked, he or she will have complete access to your phone.

Yes, having a short auto-lock setting can help in this particular situation, but it's not foolproof (there's still a 30-second gap before it locks). Instead, avoiding locking your phone at all is a better security measure.

The only thing a thief could do with the Camera app from the lock screen is take pictures and view the pictures you've just recently taken. All other tasks require the passcode.

To launch the Camera app from the lock screen, swipe from right to left.

Set Up 'Find My iPhone'

Find My iPhone screen from iCloud.com

Find My iPhone is useful for protecting your data if you don't have physical access to your iPhone. Not only can you use the feature to locate your lost phone, it can also delete all the data remotely.

Privacy Settings

The Privacy controls built into iOS let you restrict apps, advertisers, and other entities from accessing data stored in apps. In the case of defending against surveillance and spying, these settings offer a few useful protections.

Disable Significant Locations

Your iPhone tries to learn your habits. For example, it attempts to figure out the GPS location of your home and your job so that it can tell you how long your commute is going to take. Learning these frequent locations can be helpful, but that data also tells a lot about where you go, when, and what you may be doing.

To make your movements harder to track, disable Significant Locations on your iPhone:

  1. Open the Settings app.

  2. Go to Privacy > Location Services > System Services.

    Settings, Privacy, Location Services screens on iPhone
  3. Choose Significant Locations, or Frequent Locations if you're not running the most recent version of iOS.

  4. Tap Clear History.

  5. Select the button next to Significant Locations to turn it off.

    Significant Locations setting on iPhone

Prevent Apps From Accessing Your Location

Non-native apps may try to access your iPhone location data, too. This feature can be helpful, like when a restaurant-finder shows which restaurants are nearby, but it can also make it easier to track your movements. 

Settings, Privacy, Camera screens on iPhone

To stop apps from accessing your location, go to Privacy > Location Services in the Settings app. Either move the Location Services slider to off/white or tap each individual app that you want to restrict, and choose Never.

Below are a couple more tips that can generally serve you well in protecting your privacy:

Sign Out of iCloud

A lot of important personal data is likely stored in your iCloud account. Sign out of iCloud if you think there's a chance that you'll lose physical control of your phone.

Settings, Apple ID, Password screens on iPhone

To sign off of iCloud from your iPhone, just open Settings and tap your name (or iCloud on older devices) to find the Sign Out button at the bottom.

Delete Your Data Before Crossing Borders

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents may ask people coming into the country — even legal permanent residents — to provide access to their phones as a condition of entering the country. If you don't want the government rooting through your data on your way into the country, don't leave anything on your phone in the first place.

Instead, before you travel, back up all the data on your phone to iCloud. A computer can work, too, but if that's crossing the border with you, it might also be inspected.

After you're sure that all of your data is safe, restore your iPhone to its factory settings. This step deletes all of your data, accounts, and other personal information. As a result, there's nothing to inspect on your phone.

When your phone is no longer at risk of being examined, you can restore your iCloud backup and all of your data onto your phone.

Update to the Latest iOS Version

Settings, General, Software Update screens on iPhone

Every new version of iOS includes improvements over the prior one, but beyond feature additions are important security enhancements that you need to make sure your iPhone is as secure as possible.

For example, jailbreaking the iPhone is often accomplished by taking advantage of security flaws in older versions of iOS. However, if your phone is always up to date, those security flaws are likely to have been fixed.

Anytime there's a new version of iOS, you should update — assuming it doesn't conflict with any other security tools you use.