Things To Do on Your iPhone to Stop Government Spying

prevent iphone government spying
image credit: xijian/E+/Getty Images

In an increasingly chaotic and frightening world, more people than ever are concerned about the government surveillance. Surveillance is probably easier than ever before thanks to the wealth of data captured and stored on devices like the iPhone. From our communications to the locations we visit to our social networks, our phones contain a lot of sensitive information about us and our activities.

Luckily, they also contain features that help us protect our digital privacy and prevent government spying. Check out these tips for keeping your data and your activities private.

Security for Web, Chat, and Email

Communications are one of the key things that surveillance seeks to gain access to. Encryption and taking certain precautions with the apps you use can help.

Use a VPN for Web Browsing

A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, routes all of your Internet browsings through a private "tunnel" which is protected with encryption from surveillance. While there have been reports of governments being able to crack some VPNs, using one will provide more protection than not. To use a VPN, you need two things: a VPN app and a subscription to a VPN service provider who provides the encrypted access to the internet. There's a VPN app built into the iOS, and numerous options available in the App Store, including:

Always Use Private Browsing 

When you browse the web, Safari tracks your browsing history, information which can be relatively easy to access if someone gets access to your iPhone. Avoid leaving a trail of web browsing data by using Private Browsing. This feature built into Safari ensures that your browsing history isn't saved. Turn the feature on by following these steps:

  1. Tap Safari
  2. Tap the two-squares icon at the bottom right
  3. Tap Private
  4. Tap + to open a new Private Browsing window.

Use an Encrypted Chat App

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 smartphone platform; that breaks encryption for the entire conversation.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights and policy organization, provides a useful Secure Messaging Scorecard to help you find the best chat app for your needs.

Ditch Email—Unless It's End-to-End Encrypted

As noted in the last section, encryption is a key way to keep prying eyes away from your private communications. While there are a number of totally encrypted chat apps, it's much harder to find unbreakably encrypted email. In fact, some encrypted email providers have shut down due to government pressure.

One good option includes ProtonMail, but just make sure that you're emailing someone who also uses it. Like with chat, if a recipient isn't using encryption, all of your communications are at risk.

Sign Out of Social Networks

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. Make sure to always sign out of your social networking apps when you're done using them. You should also sign out at an OS level, by following these steps:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Twitter or Facebook
  3. Sign out of, or delete, your account (this won't delete the social networking account, just the data on your phone).

Passcode and Device Access

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 your iPhone. These tips can help make it harder for them to view your data.

Set a Complex Passcode

Everyone should use a passcode to secure their iPhone, and the more complex your passcode, the harder it is to break into. We saw this in the showdown between Apple and the FBI over the iPhone in the San Bernardino terrorism case. Because a complex passcode was used, the FBI had an extremely difficult time accessing the device. A four-digit passcode isn't enough. Make sure to use the most complex passcode you can remember, combining numbers, letters (lowercase and uppercase). For tips on creating secure passwords, check out this article from the EFF.

Set a complex passcode by following these instructions:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Touch ID & Passcode
  3. Enter your passcode, if needed
  4. Tap Change Passcode
  5. Tap Passcode Options
  6. Tap Custom Alphanumeric Code and enter a new passcode.

Set Your Phone to Delete Its Data

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 your data private but no longer have possession of your phone. Enable this setting by following these steps:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Touch ID & Passcode
  3. Enter your passcode, if needed
  4. Move Erase Data slider to on/green.

Turn Off Touch ID in Some Cases

We think of the fingerprint-based security offered by Apple's Touch ID fingerprint scanner as very powerful. Unless someone can forge your fingerprint, they're locked out of your phone. Recent reports from protests have said that police are bypassing this restriction by physically forcing people who have been arrested to put their fingers on the Touch ID sensor to unlock their phones. If you're in a situation where you think you could be arrested, it's smart to turn off Touch ID. That way you can't be forced to put your finger on the sensor and can rely on a complex passcode to protect your data.

Turn it off by following these steps:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Touch ID & Passcode
  3. Enter your passcode
  4. Move all of the sliders in the Use Touch ID For: section to off/white.

Set Autolock to 30 Seconds

The longer your iPhone is unlocked, the more chance there is for someone with physical access to it to view your data. Your best bet is to set your phone to autolock as quickly as possible. You'll have to unlock it more frequently in day-to-day use, but it also means that the window for unauthorized access is much smaller. To change this setting, follow these steps:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Display & Brightness 
  3. Tap Auto-Lock
  4. Tap 30 Seconds.

Disable All Lock Screen Access 

Apple makes it easy to access data and features from the iPhone's lockscreen. In most situations, this is great—a few swipes or button clicks get at the features you need, without unlocking your phone. If your phone isn't in your physical control, though, these features can give others access to your data and apps. While turning off these features makes your phone a bit less convenient to use, it protects you, too. Change your settings by following these steps:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Touch ID & Passcode
  3. Enter your passcode, if needed
  4. Move the following sliders to off/white:
    1. Voice Dial
    2. Today View
    3. Notifications View
    4. Siri
    5. Reply with Message
    6. Wallet.

Only Use Camera From The Lockscreen

If you're taking pictures at an event—a protest, for instance—your phone is unlocked. If someone is able to grab your phone while it's unlocked, they can access your data. Having a very short autolock setting can help with this, but it's not foolproof in this scenario. Not unlocking your phone at all is a better security measure. You can do this, and still take pictures, by launching the Camera app from your lockscreen. When you do this, you can only use the Camera app and view the pictures you've just taken. Try to do anything else, and you'll need the passcode.

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

Set Up Find My iPhone

Find My iPhone is extremely useful for protecting your data if you don't have physical access to your iPhone. That's because you can use it to delete all data on the phone over the Internet. To do that, make sure you've set up Find My iPhone

Then, read this article about how to use Find My iPhone to delete your data.

Privacy Settings

The Privacy controls built into the 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 Frequent Locations

Your iPhone tries to learn your habits. For instance, it tries to figure out the GPS location of your home and your job so that it can tell you when you wake up in the morning 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 keep your movements harder to track, disable Frequent Locations by following these steps:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Privacy 
  3. Tap Location Services
  4. Scroll to the very bottom and tap System Services
  5. Tap Frequent Locations
  6. Clear any existing locations
  7. Move the Frequent Locations slider to off/white.

Prevent Apps from Accessing Your Location

Third-party apps may try to access your location data, too. This can be helpful—if Yelp can't figure out your location, it can't tell you what restaurants nearby offer the food you want—but it can also make it easier to track your movements. Stop apps from accessing your location by following these steps:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Privacy
  3. Tap Location Services
  4. Either move the Location Services slider to off/white or tap each individual app that you want to restrict and then tap Never.

Here are a few other 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. Make sure to sign out of that account if you think there's a chance that you'll lose physical control of your device. To do that:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap iCloud
  3. Tap Sign Out at the bottom of the screen. 

Delete Your Data Before Crossing Borders

Recently, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has begun asking 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 any data 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, too, it might also be inspected).

Once you're sure that all of your data is safe, restore your iPhone to its factory settings. This 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 Latest OS 

Hacking the iPhone is often accomplished by taking advantage of security flaws in older versions of the iOS, the operating system that runs the iPhone. If you're always running the latest version of the iOS, those security flaws are likely to have been fixed. Anytime there's a new version of the iOS, you should update—assuming it doesn't conflict with any other security tools you use.

To learn how to update your iOS, check out:

Learn More at the EFF

Want to learn more about protecting yourself and your data, with tutorials aimed at journalists, activists, and many other groups? Check out the EFF's Surveillance Self-Defense website.