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

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Spying and phone tapping are easier than ever due to the wealth of data captured and stored on devices such as smartphones. From our communications to the locations we visit and the social networks we frequent, our phones contain sensitive information about us and our activities. Devices such as the iPhone contain features that protect digital privacy and prevent government spying.

Use a VPN for Web Browsing

Web browsing is an activity most everyone does on a phone, so it's one of the first things that should be safeguarded to prevent iPhone spying. An easy way to protect your web browsing privacy is with a VPN.

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

While there have been reports of governments being able to crack some VPNs, using one provides more protection than not. Two things are required to use a VPN with an iPhone: a VPN subscription from a VPN service provider and a method to input the provider information into the phone (such as a VPN app).

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

Always Use Private Browsing

Every time you browse the web, whether through a VPN or not, Safari identifies and records your browsing history. This information is 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 remains on your iPhone.

Private Browsing Mode in Safari for iPhone

To access Private Browsing Mode in Safari, tap the two-square icon in the lower-right corner, then tap Private. Any tab you open in this mode is considered private and won't be logged in your browsing history.

Close the tabs when you're done to clear them. Safari keeps them open when you close the app or switch to normal mode. Tap the x at the top of each tab to close it for good.

Use an Encrypted Chat App

Eavesdropping on conversations can net a ton of useful information — unless these conversations can't be cracked. To secure your chat conversations, 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.

WhatsApp, Messenger, and Signal apps for iPhone

Make sure that no one in your iMessage group chats uses 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, use an app that forces encryption no matter what platform it runs on. WhatsApp, Facebook Secret Conversations, Signal, Telegram Messenger, and Viber are a few examples.

Don't Use Unsecure Email

Encryption is the best way to combat iPhone spying, but encrypting texts, calls, and web browsing aren't enough if you use an unsecured email provider.

Upgrade your email service to a tier that supports encryption, or drop your email provider and choose a service that promises that it won't (or can't, due to encryption) reveal your emails to governing authorities. There are several great email providers out there, but not all of them can make these promises. Plus, of the encrypted providers, some have shut down due to government pressure.

If you need a secure email service, use one that is similar to ProtonMail or Hushmail.

Disposable email addresses are often secure — some delete emails every day or every few hours. Read the service's security features to be sure.

Sign Out of Social Networks

Social networks are increasingly used to communicate and organize travel and events. Government access to social networks reveals your network of friends, activities, movements, and plans.

The best way to prevent spying is to not post things on social media that can be used to track your whereabouts and habits. It's also important to 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

Spying doesn't just happen over the internet. It can also happen when police, immigration and customs agents, and other governmental entities get physical access to an iPhone. Securing your phone from physical access is 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 see anything stored on it. Open Settings and look for the Face ID & Passcode or Touch ID & Passcode option. Then, choose a 4-digit or 6-digit passcode, a custom alphanumeric code, or Face ID if your phone supports it.

The more complex the 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 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. This option is in the Settings app under Face ID & Passcode or Touch ID & Passcode. Enable Erase Data to turn it on.

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

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 sensor. Instead, rely on a complex passcode to protect your data, which is much harder to pull from you than your fingerprint.

Follow these steps to learn where the Touch ID settings are and disable the fingerprint reader on your iPhone. Open the Settings app and tap Touch ID & Passcode or Face ID & Passcode to disable Face ID.

Set Auto-Lock to 30 Seconds

The longer an iPhone is unlocked, the longer someone has unrestricted access to the data on the phone. Aside from manually locking your iPhone when you finish 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.

Here's how to have your phone auto-lock sooner:

  1. Open Settings.

  2. Go to Display & Brightness > Auto-Lock.

  3. Tap 30 Seconds (the lowest option available).

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

Disable All Lock Screen Access 

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

However, if the phone isn't in your physical control, these features give others access to your data and apps. Turning off lock screen access dumbs down the phone a bit because you aren't using it at its fullest potential, and it increases overall privacy and security.

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 Today View, Notification Center, Return Missed Calls, Reply with Message, and Wallet.

Only Open the Camera From The Lockscreen

If you take pictures with other people around, like at an event, avoid unlocking your phone. Should someone grab it while unlocked, they will have complete access to the phone. A short auto-lock setting can help in this situation, but it's not foolproof (there's still a 30-second gap before it locks).

The only thing a thief can do with the Camera app from the lock screen is take pictures and view pictures you recently took. 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 protects your data if you don't have physical access to the iPhone. Not only can you use the feature to locate your lost phone, but it also deletes the data remotely.

Privacy Settings

The Privacy controls built into iOS 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

The iPhone learns your habits. For example, it learns 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. Turn off the Significant Locations toggle switch.

    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, such as when a restaurant-finder shows which restaurants are nearby, but it can also make it easy to track your movements. 

To stop apps from accessing your location, open the Settings app and go to Privacy > Location Services. Either turn off the Location Services toggle switch or tap the individual app that you want to restrict and choose Never.

Sign Out of iCloud

If you have important personal data 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. To sign out of iCloud from your iPhone, open Settings, tap your name (or iCloud on older devices), then tap Sign Out.

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 important information on the phone.

Before you travel, back up 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 your data is safe, restore your iPhone to its factory settings. This step deletes all your data, accounts, and other personal information. As a result, there's nothing to inspect on the phone.

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

Update to the Latest iOS Version

Every new version of iOS includes improvements over the prior one along with important security enhancements that make sure the 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 fixed.

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