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How to Safely Download and Use Apps (While Keeping Your Personal Data Private)

Online privacy is a much bigger deal than it’s ever been.

Recent online privacy hearings like Facebook’s are only the tip of the iceberg. Across the world people are waking up to the reality that many of the apps they use in their day to day lives are reporting on them.

It’s one thing for apps from companies you trust, but it’s a whole different ballgame with malware apps and other bad actors that steal your data and sell it on unsavory black markets.

If you’re not careful about the apps you install and the user agreements you agree to, you could be giving your information away without even knowing it. How can you download and use apps safely? And is there a way to do it while keeping your personal data private still?

How to Avoid Malware

One of the easiest ways to avoid bad apps is to not download them in the first place. That may be easier said than done, though. You need to know how to properly screen your apps to avoid getting infected.

Use Only Official App Stores

First, don’t install anything that’s not on the official app store for your phone’s platform—either Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store. Third-party app stores may have plenty of apps that are fine, but their guidelines are often less stringent than the guidelines for the official stores.

Do not install anything that doesn’t come from the official store.

No matter how fun it sounds, no matter how many friends recommend it to you. Unless you’re a professional who’s trying out advance software builds or something, it’s just not worth the risk.

Check Your App Names and Publishers

If you’re planning to install an app you’ve heard about, make sure you get the name and the publisher right. When an app gets popular, it can spawn a lot of copycats. And even legitimate apps have a lot of knockoffs that may look similar.

Pokemon Go is a very popular app, but it has both many imitators and many other branded apps that are similar. Installing the wrong one is a risk.

The same goes for just about any app.

If you want to install the correct app, you need to do your homework first. Find out which company makes the app, check that you have the name right and avoid the pitfalls of lookalikes. Use Google to find the website for any app you install, because reputable apps should be tied to a website and a developer at the very least.

Only Install Essential Apps (and Purge Every Few Months)

The less apps you have installed, the less chance you have of getting infected by malware that steals your data. That’s common sense.

People commonly load up their phone with tons of apps, some that they might only use once or twice. Don’t be one of them. Adding more apps means adding more opportunities for prying eyes to look at your data.

Do as much as you can with the apps that come installed on your phone by default. Then add just what you need. Consider going through your phone every few months and purging out anything you haven’t used in a while, too.

Read Reviews

Before installing an app, read the reviews. If a significant number of reviews talk about technical problems, you might avoid it. And if you see people bringing up issues like slower data connections, extra ads or other problems, it’s another mark against the app.

Reading the reviews also gives you a better idea of what the app actually does and whether it’s the one you’re looking for.

Sometimes big tech publishing outlets will review apps, and these reviews are extremely helpful in figuring out whether it’s worth adding. These outlets know more about the technical side than most people and know how to dig below the surface.

Watch for these and weigh them heavily.

Check the Terms of Service

No one ever reads the Terms of Service before they sign off. But it’s worth your time.

If the first paragraph or two reads like legalese, pause. It may indicate they don’t really care about users. You should also check for data collection and monetization in the agreements. Finally, you need to be aware of any sort of “implicit agreement” in there — for example, “By browsing this webpage you agree to X,” or “By installing this app you agree to Y.”

There are also services that read through the terms of service for you to make sure they’re in your best interests. Projects like Terms of Service: Didn’t Read will allow you to see the basics of what companies can do with your data when you install an app or use their website without scrolling through pages of dense legal documentation. Take a look before you add that app.

If you follow all these steps before actually installing something, you’ll safeguard yourself against the worst bad actor — you’ll keep out malware apps.

But what about when you’ve already loaded things on your phone or tablet?

How to Discover and Stop Privacy Issues

When the app is already on your phone, you’ve already let them in the door …

What do you do now? There are steps you can take to both ferret out and remove apps that want to steal your data — here’s what you can do:

Look for Unexplained Phone Issues

If you’ve installed a malware app, it will often show signs that it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. Look for significant battery drain. Even the best malicious apps can’t conceal their extra processes. That decline won’t be subtle.

If you’re usually getting great battery life and then all of a sudden it tanks after you’ve installed an app, it’s a good bet that app has something malicious in it.

Extra data use is another telltale sign. Botnets or relays of user data will use huge chunks of data, and if your Internet speeds tank or you see your data getting used up way too fast it might be an indication you’ve downloaded something bad.

Huge extra charges on your phone bill are another telltale sign of malware. Malicious apps that hog your data or send tons of premium text messages will tank your phone bill. Make sure you keep an eye out to avoid these issues.

Keep an eye on security news, too. Sites like Slashdot, Ars Technica and TechCrunch will advise you of any issues that have shown up. They keep an eye on ongoing tech issues and will let you know if anything is coming up.

Disable Permissions

You know those popups that want to know your location? Or have access to your microphone? 

Use common sense. If it’s a calculator app, it doesn’t need to have access to your microphone. If it’s a game, it shouldn’t have to know your location — most of the time. 

Don’t turn on permissions for any apps that shouldn’t need them. That’s opening the door for you to get data stolen. You can keep permissions on for apps that really need them, but for the most part avoid permissions if you don’t have to turn them on.

If you want to retroactively change your permissions for different apps, you can access them from the “Settings” menu on both Android and iOS. On Android, choose “Apps,” then choose the app you want to alter, then choose “App Permissions.” You can adjust which apps have access to what from here. On iOS, choose “Privacy” from the menu, then tap any entry to choose which apps get those permissions.

Either way, you need to make sure you’re not sending information out that you don’t want in someone else’s hands. If you’re careful and you check periodically, you can keep any apps from sending out information you don’t want out in the world.

Install a Security Suite

When you set up your computer one of the first steps is usually setting up an antivirus suite.

But what about your phone or tablet?

Many people spend more time on the Internet from their phone or tablet than they do from a computer. A security suite is just as important for them as it is for the people who spend their days on a computer.

Avast, Bitdefender, AVG, Norton, Avira and most of the other major antivirus players offer antivirus programs for phones and tablets. Installing one of these can help you keep your phone safe from programs that would take your private data away.

These tools will also warn you before you go to any infected websites. They’ll allow you to keep an eye on all the apps installed on your phone. They’re great for making sure you don’t get into trouble.

When you get a phone or a tablet you need to be aware of how easy it is to give away your personal information. Most people don’t realize how much of their data they give away. Be aware first of the apps you install, then know the signs of problems with malicious apps.

If you stay on top of it, you can avoid the worst problems with data sharing. Keep your personal information safe with these tips. And if you have any questions, call HelpCloud technicians for remote support.

We’ll give you the assistance you need.

Erik Fullmer

Director of Marketing

Erik was raised in many places in a military family but has long since called Utah home. He spends free time in his garden, in the mountains with his dog, and skis…a lot. He is actively earning the necessary certifications and training to become a certified winter mountain guide.

Erik graduated from Utah Valley University in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science and a minor in Spanish. Additionally, being raised by a German mother, he spent a part of his childhood and also the beginning of his professional career in Germany where he worked as a Digital Strategist for adesta, a locally owned business in Darmstadt. Speaking three languages has opened up the world to him and influences the breadth of topics covered in his articles. He has always held an affinity for the world wide web and its workings, development, history and future.

Being a key player in the development of, and Director of Marketing for HelpCloud, he takes the content displayed and utilized on HelpCloud extremely seriously.

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