Consumer IQ

Is Your Cell Phone a Tracking Device? Here’s How to Preserve Your Privacy

cell phone

Recent reports that cell phone carriers responded 1.3 million times last year to law enforcement requests for call data have prompted some industry observers to urge us to start calling wireless phones “tracking devices.”

That’ll never happen, of course. But what if commentators missed an opportunity to tell the chatting public what they could do right now to stop cell phones from following their every move?

You’ve probably seen the reports that claim the government can track your whereabouts and listen to conversations happening within 50 feet of your cell phone, even when the device is turned off.

Ahem, give me just a second to adjust my tin foil hat.

Whether that’s true or not – and I’m not saying it is or isn’t — I think the only way to make absolutely certain that you aren’t being tracked or listened to in 2012, is to not carry a phone.

“Your smartphone is a homing beacon that would’ve made James Bond happy,” says John Nicholson, a Washington lawyer who specializes in privacy issues. “However, unless you might unexpectedly need to be rescued from the clutches of SPECTRE, there’s no need to send out that information all the time, and the steps you can take to avoid being tracked range in levels of paranoia and the type of tracking you’re trying to avoid.”

Here are a few other ways to preserve your privacy.

Buy a disposable phone.

That reportedly worked for Katie Holmes when she hatched her plan for a quickie divorce from Tom Cruise. Holmes asked a friend to buy a throwaway phone for her, which meant no one knew she was using it. The extra privacy is said to have allowed her to prepare a legal case without the knowledge of anyone else.

Disposable phones aren’t for everyone, and if you’re looking for a feature-rich smartphone experience, you’ll be disappointed. But by the time they’re on to you, you will have thrown the phone away and bought another one. (Cost: Between $70 and $100.)

Get a “stealth” phone.

Cell phones can be modified to make them more difficult to trace. The upgrades, which any respectable spy shop will sell you, affect the phone’s hardware, alerting you to interception attempts, but they also encrypt conversations using a sophisticated and difficult-to-crack algorithm. That can be pricey, and determined hackers or government agencies could probably still find you if they wanted to. But if you’d rather not let everyone know where you are, this could be an option.

Warning: If you get caught with one of these phones, everyone will think you’re trying to hide something. And that includes me.

Install a privacy app.

If you’re using a smartphone, you can install a privacy-enhancing app, such as Protect My Privacy. The free program prevents any app from accessing your contacts, location and your device’s unique identifier information. It also offers the information-hungry apps on your phone fake information to prevent them from crashing.

Protect My Privacy, which was developed by two college professors, won’t encrypt your voice communication, but it can stop snooping apps from tracking you.

Note: In order to install it, you need to jailbreak your iPhone, which voids your warranty. But if you need more privacy, it could be an option.

Fix your settings.

Nicholson says you can take a few common-sense steps that don’t involve hacking your phone. “You should turn off location services and any GPS functions on your mobile device unless you need them,” he says.

He continues, “You should also keep your wireless connection turned off unless you’re actively using it for something. When you have location services turned on, your current location is available to the applications running on your smartphone. When I need a map or something that requires my location on my smartphone, I turn that function on. When I’m done, I turn it off, again.”

Your right to privacy.

I’m not a privacy advocate, but as someone who fights for consumers, I believe we have certain rights when it comes to privacy. Rights we may not yet be fully aware of.

For example, we have a right to turn off our phones and have a private conversation, without being watched or heard. We have the right to tell each app on our smartphone which information it can have, and which information it can’t. I believe consumers also have the right to control what information they divulge to a business via cell phone.

I’m not about to buy a disposable or modified cell phone; it’s too expensive and too impractical. But I think we ought to be in control of what our smartphones reveal about us – not a computer manufacturer, not a software developer, and not a government agency.

Hang on, there’s someone knocking at the door. I’ll be right back …

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.