Android privacy friendly: The ultimate guide

The ultimate guide to an Android, privacy friendly smartphone.

Android is a crucial component of any successful privacy friendly strategy. Yet it can also pose significant challenges for anyone wanting to create their ultimate privacy friendly smartphone.

This complete guide towards a privacy friendly Android smartphone, takes you through the privacy settings. It additionally helps you reviewing your installed apps with each their individual settings and permissions. Against app creators and their advertisers sneaking up on you.

In which the average user has absolutely no idea about gathering their personal information over and over again. And totally unaware that this is being implemented on a large scale. After you obtain an exclusive premium smartphone you are not there yet. Now you personally are the product. “You are not the customer. You are the product.” *1

Personal data, in the perspective of 'You are the product'

Out of the box Android and many apps want to collect your privacy-sensitive personal data, such as the location where you are, who you are in contact with where and when, and what interests you have. That last topic is a broad one. It can be your hobby, also the websites you visit on the Internet, the movies you watch on the Internet, the clothes you buy on the Internet, your political affiliation, voice and sound activity, for all the sounds a smartphone picks up, or the books you're reading.

Advertisers pay app creators to use the collected personal information. As such, they are able to deliver ads targeted on your interests, based on the collected personal information. The more information, the better for the advertisers. To create an ever better and more targeted advertising profile of you as a user. In which you have become their 'product'. That sounds relatively harmless, however it becomes dangerous when personal data is leaked, (re)sold or hacked. Therefore, leave as little as possible behind on the Internet. And tighten the privacy settings on your smartphone. 

Google Account

When you turned on your new Android smartphone for the first time. Did you choose the "quick" setup feature? If so you immediately and automatically granted permission, to share your personal information with Google called: Location history and web and app activity.

Location history and web and app activity involves a lot of personal data which will be collected. Including your visits to websites, apps, location, voice and audio activity. Google uses this information for 'personal' ads, among other things.

Turn off all options and 'pause' web activity as Google calls it for more privacy and on your phone, navigate to:

Settings, Google (Services and preferences), Manage your Google Account and select sub option: Data and privacy.

In case you adjusted a setting too much and it is reducing your user experience? Remember what you're going to adjust. As you can always fix it later.

Web & App Activity

Turn off Web & App Activity and make sure "Include Chrome history and activity from sites, apps and devices that use Google services" and "Include voice and audio activity" are turned off respectively.

Location History

Turn off Location History. As it tracks your location even when you aren't using a specific app or service. 

YouTube History

Turn off YouTube History and make sure "Include the YouTube videos that you watched" and "Include your searches on Youtube" are both turned off.

My Ad Centre

Turn off Your Google Account info so your preferred language(s) aren't used to personalize ads.

Turn off Categories used to show you ads so no guesses about you, such as whether you'd like ads.

Turn off Activity used to personalise ads. This option requires no further explanation.

Personal results in Search

Turn off Show personal results which also implies that Auto-complete predictions from your search history. And recommendations for you based on activity in your Google Account, like Discover stories, what to watch and where to eat. 

Google Fit privacy

If you use Google Fit, the same principle applies as above. Turn off as many privacy-related options as possible. Since we don't use Google Fit based accessories (i.e. smartwatches and even modern running shoes) ourselves. We can neither explain nor describe this. We do not recommend using Google related fitness services anyway. After all it is not recommended to share personal medical-related information with big-tech companies.

Limit app permissions

Apps require access to multiple sources of information to be able to function correctly. Such as access to the camera, microphone, contact list, calendar and/or GPS sensor. For example, a car navigation app needs to know where you are (GPS). Otherwise you can't be navigated to your final destination and navigation on the whole will obviously not work.

However many apps collect a lot of unnecessary personal data. For example: A relatively simple weather forecast app does not need access to your camera, calendar, contact list, websites visits and SMS. Although from the average app creators perspective, pretty obvious. Ask for as many permissions as possible. So the creator can make more targeted sales to an advertiser.

A modern Android smartphone has 3 app permissions: Allow only while using the app, Ask every time and Don't allow. Through Settings, Apps you can control the permissions of individual apps. If you are really eager to increase your privacy, walk through all apps. Of course, we understand that your time could be limited. In this case tweak only the "Recently opened apps".

These applications you use regularly. "Allow only while using the app" is a safe option where an app is allowed to use an information source only when you are using it. You can expropriate unnecessary permissions with "Don't allow".

"Ask every time" is a tricky option. Since you get asked ad nauseam, by many apps to allow access, again, again and again. Obviously with the goal of gaining access to your personal information anyway. Most users ultimately give in. Just to get rid of those annoying notifications. And that, of course, is what you really don't want at all.

Usage and diagnostics

Turn off the usage and diagnostics option for more privacy and on your phone, navigate to:

Settings, Privacy and select sub option: Usage & diagnostics and turn off Usage & diagnostics.

Despite the fact that your additional web and app activity is already disabled. Personal data will be collected. The only difference, it may not be saved to your Google Account. Pay close attention to the word 'may'. In other words, it does still occur. Since Google uses multiple techniques to create a personal profile. They (Google and partners, as it is literally written in the terms and conditions) still can get very close, to their ideal personal profile with this option as well: To know nearly everything about you and your activities on the Internet.

Even without a Google Account, without using the search engine with the same name. And even if you don't use anything from Google, even then they can gather your personal information. For example via Google Analytics if you visit websites in general. As Google Analytics is used by 86.0% of all the websites in the world (Update: reference date April, 2023). 

Advertising ID and personalization

If you already used your phone with Google Account and without privacy "friendly" settings. Then remove your Advertising ID, is our advice. It removes your existing profile of interests to personalize ads. Navigate to: 

Settings, Privacy and select sub option: Ads and use Delete advertising ID.

Otherwise, personalized ads can still be served, despite the fact that this feature is turned off.

Location accuracy with Google's location service

Android will regularly ask if you want to use Google's location service. Decide how (in)accurate the location determination is that apps may use to your liking. Do not choose this service is our recommendation. Besides the GPS, Google will also want to use Wi-FI, your mobile network and other sensors in the smartphone to gather data for their location-based services. 

"Location-based services" means nothing more or less than that with more sources of information, Google can even better adjust its ads to your "behavior" and thus show an ad that is better tailored to you. We wonder aloud if this is in your best interest.

Android without Google Services

Once you've gone through the above steps, your smartphone is one step more privacy friendly. However, the question remains whether Google will abide by the settings you just made.

This may sound a bit strange, despite that Google has often collected location data despite the fact that multiple users explicitly turned off the relevant location setting. Whereby Google simply continued and collected the location data of these users, without permission.

The only solution to ensure that no or as little personal data as possible is collected by Google and/or third parties. Is simply to use Android software without Google Services. This is possible of course. An example of Android without Google is CalyxOS or LineageOS. Yet take note. Many apps and services use Google Services nowadays. Quite a few apps will stop working if your phone won't use these Services. 

Android unfortunately, is not the only operating system with unlimited data hunger. We as Androides, conclude this article with the fact that even more operating systems are collecting privacy-sensitive personal data by default. For example, Windows which uses a similar principle called: Telemetry. Since most smartphone owners also have a computer. Often with Windows. Also check out our how to to setup Windows privacy friendly.

1. You’re Not the Customer; You’re the Product

Photo: Anjana C, Pexels.