Why You Need a Firewall App for Your iPhone

Apps are thirsty for your data—here’s how to stop them

Key Takeaways

  • Apple’s built-in tech only protects you while using Safari to browse the web.
  • Third-party apps like Guardian and Lockdown block dodgy connections in all apps.
  • You should make sure you 100% trust an app before you trust it to filter all your internet traffic.
Close up pf a computer keyboard key saying is your data safe
Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Intelligent Tracking Prevention is a new iOS 14 feature that stops websites from tracking you and stealing your personal information, but it only works in Safari. What do you do about trackers in apps?

You might be surprised by how many apps track you and steal private data from your iPhone and iPad. Despite Apple’s strict App Store rules, apps are allowed to collect and share your location, your contact details, and more. Even without your permission, they can also steal all kinds of information you probably prefer to keep private. The solution is to install some kind of firewall on your device.

“Many people expressed shock just from what we were able to show in our first release,” Will Strafach, creator of iOS anti-tracking app Guardian, told Lifewire via direct message, “and now with Push to notify users in real time, I am very curious to see what folks think.”

What Are Trackers?

A tracker is anything that tracks you on the internet. For instance, when you search for, say, a phone charger on Amazon, you might see ads on other sites for that same phone charger. That’s a form of tracking.

Another example is Facebook. All those Facebook widgets on websites around the world collect data about you, your computer, your location, and more. Even when you’re not on the social network’s site, Facebook knows what you’re doing.

It’s not just Facebook, either. Recently, many weather apps were found to be selling your location data. You should also be paranoid about an app that uses your email credentials or accesses your contacts and photos.

Guardian Firewall

Guardian Firewall was the first firewall app on iOS. It works by setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on your device, like the one you may use to connect to your work servers, or to stay safe when using public Wi-Fi. This VPN routes all of your internet connections through Guardian’s servers, and blocks trackers and other privacy-stealing connections. The blocking is completely anonymous. 

There are some other nice side effects, too. Because your connection is routed through Guardian’s servers, websites cannot see where you are in the world. You know how Google guesses your location, and tells you at the bottom of every search page? That can’t happen with a VPN.

The app can show you a list of all the connections it has blocked, but because Guardian’s developers are so focused on privacy, it can’t actually tell you which of your apps tried to send data. However, in version 2.0, there are new tools to help you track down bad apps.

Guardian’s new Firewall Pro package ($125 annually) now gives you a standard iOS alert whenever a connection is blocked. This real-time feedback lets you work out which apps are the worst offenders. 

“I personally feel it helps hammer in how pervasive this kind of activity is,” says Strafach. “With some apps, they appear to be pinging trackers almost nonstop.”

Lockdown

Another security option is Lockdown, which has the advantage of working entirely on your device. It routes all your internet traffic through a filter that blocks unwanted connections. Block lists are updated weekly, and you can add your own items to the list. Lockdown’s creators made the app after receiving an odd proposal: they were asked to add a piece of tracking code to their other apps, in return for money.

Simple diagram showing how apps collect data and what Lockdown does
Lockdown 

“We learned that the company that approached us was a data-mining company, and the ‘little piece of code’ would secretly report a user's location, IP address, and usage patterns to their servers,” wrote Lockdown’s creators Johnny Lin and Rahul Dewan. “They would then sell that user data to another third-party, which could have been literally anyone: advertising firms, marketing companies, hostile state actors—who knows?”

Can You Trust These Apps?

One problem with offloading your security to yet another app/service is that you have to trust it. After all, your sensitive data is being funneled through their apps and/or servers.

"I actually think people are turning towards apps like ours because Apple has left them in the dust by delaying enforcement of the tracker warnings."

I’ve used both Lockdown and Guardian, on and off, since they were launched, and I’ve also done a fair bit of research on both products. I’m happy to trust them, right now, but if you’re planning to use these services, or something similar, then you should also do your own research. 

Doesn’t iOS 14 Do All This Already?

In iOS 14, Apple added a lot of new anti-tracking features, but they’re confusing at best. It has also delayed some of its anti-tracking features after complaints from advertisers. 

The advantage of using Apple’s built-in tools is that you already trust the platform vendor. The disadvantage is a lack of configurability. Safari’s Intelligent Tracking only works inside Safari. It doesn’t block apps. Apple’s privacy features are great, but sometimes they may have to be careful, lest it be seen to be bullying other companies. 

“I actually think people are turning towards apps like ours because Apple has left them in the dust by delaying enforcement of the tracker warnings,” says Strafach.