How to Use Your Phone’s Privacy-Protection Tools

Concerned about how your data is being used by apps and websites? Apple’s iOS 15 and Google’s Android 12 operating systems beefed up their privacy controls this year to give you more warnings — and options — when a site or service wants to use personal information like location or browser clicks. Here’s a quick guide to those settings.

System Settings

In iOS or Android, open the Settings app by tap (or by voice) and select Privacy. You’ll find several screens, menus and switches for restricting access to the phone’s hardware (like the microphone) and software (like your contacts list) on an app-by-app basis. Android 12 includes a privacy dashboard to show what apps have been up to, as well as shortcuts to managing the information that Google collects and stores in one’s Google Account.

Apple’s iOS 15 operating system, left, and Google’s Android 12 software each have dedicated Privacy controls in the Settings area.Credit…Apple; Google

If you are curious, Apple and Google have posted statements about how they use your data. Keep in mind that blocking web trackers and location information can make your free apps work differently, and many news and cultural sites use tracking software. But if you want more control over your information, here are some specific categories to hit.


Your phone’s location services feature can pinpoint your whereabouts on a map, which is vital for things like providing driving directions. However, in recent versions of iOS and Android, you can share an approximate location instead of a precise one for slightly more privacy.

The Location Services controls in iOS 15 lets you decide which apps can use your physical location information. You can also wipe the Significant Locations file that Apple creates from monitoring your iPhone’s whereabouts, although doing so may affect apps like Calendar and Photos.Credit…Apple

On an iOS 15 device, open the Settings app and go to Privacy, then to Location Services and then System Services. Here, you can disable or enable location services and control which third-party apps (including Google’s software) can use your coordinates — or when they have permission to use that information. Scroll all the way down the list and select System Services to see how the iPhone uses your location, like collecting your “significant locations” such as your home address; you can turn this off or wipe the history if you find it invasive.

The location settings screen in Android 12 shows which apps have been using your coordinates, and it includes a shortcut to the Activity Controls in your Google account so you can manage or delete your data there.Credit…Google

On a phone running Android 12, open the Settings app and tap Location to open the controls and to see which apps have permission to use your location. Tap Location Services to get to more settings; you can also manage the Location History setting that records your wanderings. (Google’s business model includes serving up customized ads and services based on your personal information, so your user experience may be affected.)

Apps and Ads

Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature warns you when an app wants to monitor your online activity, typically for the purpose of targeted advertising. In iOS 15 Settings, tap Privacy and then Tracking to get to the controls. (While Apple’s own advertising platform claims not to share personally identifiable data with others, you can turn off those ads in the Apple Advertising area of the Privacy settings.)

Apple’s App Tracking alert, far left, gives you the chance to decide if you want personalized ads. Android 12’s Privacy settings give you the option to delete the Advertising ID apps and sites use to display ads specifically aimed at you.Credit…Apple; Google

In Android 12, open the Settings and select Privacy to get to a slew of controls, including the Ads option for avoiding targeted ads by deleting one’s Advertising ID. And this month, Google announced that Android will automatically turn off permissions for apps you haven’t used in awhile.


Browsers have been used for decades to track you through cookies and other code that observes your activity for use in marketing and advertising. (Safari’s Private Browsing and Chrome’s Incognito mode keep a surfing session from being stored, but these aren’t much help against browser trackers.)

Apple’s native Safari browser, far left, and Google Chrome each have their own collection of privacy settings.Credit…Apple; Google

Apple’s Safari browser includes tools to block tracking; go to Settings, then Safari, and scroll down to the Privacy & Security to make adjustments. The settings for Google’s Chrome browser have a Privacy and Security section, too, where you can request that sites do not track you, although some do anyway.

Third-party browser apps like the DuckDuckGo app for Android can shield your browsing, and its App Tracking Protection feature is being tested to block and report apps that follow you around.Credit…DuckDuckGo

Switching to a privacy-focused browser app like Brave or DuckDuckGo is another way to ditch many web trackers. DuckDuckGo recently announced its own App Tracking Protection Tool and an email protection feature for the Android edition of its DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser; these are in a public testing phase.


In some messages, advertisers may use a “tracking pixel” — a tiny hidden image that reports back to the sender when you open the message (among other things). Apple’s iOS 15 includes its own tool to help block mail trackers. To enable it, go to Settings, then to Mail, select Privacy Protection and tap on Protect Mail Activity.

Using the iOS Mail Privacy Protection setting, far left, and blocking images in Gmail may help you evade some tracking code in mail messages.Credit…Apple; Google

In the Gmail app for Android or iOS, you can stop images from automatically loading and squealing on your activity. Just tap open the Menu icon in the top-left corner, choose Settings, then your account name, and in the Images area choose the “Ask before displaying external images …” option. And you can always block or unsubscribe from unwanted mailing-list messages.