Let’s talk numbers for a moment, shall we…?
There are about 7.5 billion humans on planet Earth and those humans currently own about 4.78 billion smartphones. That makes the smartphone the most popular computer system on the planet, dwarfing the number of desktop and laptop computers. Although they fit in your pocket, mobile devices are still computers and should be treated as such. After all, they run operating systems, run applications & services which connect you to the internet, and — just like larger computers — can be hacked.
Having a strong commitment to protecting your most used computer is essential in today’s hyper-connected world. So let’s review some of the best tools and methods available to secure your “pocket computer”.
Table of contents
Download and Use a VPN
Of all the tools available to help secure your mobile device, using a virtual private network (or “VPN”) is the quickest, easiest, and most powerful. Using a VPN like Switcherry provides a secure connection to the internet by hiding your IP address, which you can think of as your unique identification number while on the Internet. More importantly, using a VPN encrypts the data you send and receive while online.
Even if you’re a law-abiding citizen living in a democratic nation, most of us don’t want a list of every website we visit being logged. But that’s exactly what happens when surfing the web without using a VPN. Our Internet Service Providers (or “ISPs”) can – and sometimes do – log where we chose to surf. Worse, if those companies are subpoenaed by federal agencies, they’re mandated to surrender that information about you and I to the authorities.
No, thank you.
Instead, when using a VPN, our ISPs can only see the timestamps of our connections to our VPN provider. That’s it. Any website we choose to visit after we connect to our VPN provider is hidden. We should, therefore, train ourselves to use a VPN in routine and smart ways:
- Use your VPN every time. To help make this change more permanent, see if your VPN smartphone app has an “auto-on” feature. If it does: activate it. Then, when you try surfing the web, your VPN software will first connect you to the VPN server of choice, protecting you instantly.
- Use the “kill switch”. Some VPN providers offer a handy option known as a kill switch. A kill switch terminates your internet connection if your VPN connection is lost or dropped. Activate and use this feature if offered. That preference can mean the difference between remaining hidden online or having your IP address, location, surfing history and personal information become exposed.
- Choose the best server for your purposes. If you seek speed and privacy from the prying eyes of cellphone companies, connect to servers in the US. If you wish to stream fabulous and free content from the BBC’s iPlayer, connect to a server in the UK. If you wish to avoid the prying eyes of the US intelligence agencies and their global partners, then connect to servers in Costa Rica, Bulgaria, or other non-surveillance partner countries.
- Prove it’s working! Once you’ve connected to the web via your VPN service, surf to https://ipleak.net/. Once you’re there, check to see if your public or private IP address is showing. If your VPN is active, it should only show your VPN’s IP address, not your personal one. Additionally, if you’re using a VPN service, then your physical location should never be revealed. Try connecting to VPN servers in different countries that your provider offers and confirm that your location is shown to be wherever your VPN server exists and NOT where you actually are. If you’re connecting to a VPN server in Bermuda or Bulgaria then https://ipleak.net/ should show those countries as your location.
Use a Better Web Browser
Although Safari and Chrome are, by far, the most popular mobile web browsers, they aren’t necessarily the best when it comes to security and privacy. That’s because they still load ads, trackers, and cookies. Those extra pieces of code not only make websites slower to load, but also track us wherever we go online. Worse, they use up data on our mobile data plans.
Even using a privacy or incognito mode isn’t advised as there are problems and limitations with this technology, as WIRED magazine has covered.
Therefore, use another browser!
The Brave web browser works on all modern mobile devices, is 100% free and very simple to use. Even better, it offers an easy way to block cookies, tracking software, and intrusive ads. As a result, it’s blazing fast compared to the competition as this video demonstrates:
To get started, download and install Brave, launch the application, and then tap the orange Brave logo in the upper-right corner of the app window. The easy-to-use control panel opens as shown:
The stronger you make Brave by activating these settings, the more you’ll notice how websites look and work. Some websites are so full of trackers, ads, and cookies that they won’t work with Brave set at the most secure settings. As you can see from top to bottom in the image above, applying different levels of security results in websites looking and behaving quite differently:
- In the first example at left, you can see how CNN.com loads normally, including ads, trackers, and cookies, only some of which you can see.
- At center, with the “Block Ads and Tracking” and “Block Phishing” options turned on, Brave shows that 43 ads, trackers, and cookies have been blocked. As a result, this webpage page will now far more quickly and without the truck ad.
- On the right, nearly all of Brave’s blockers have been turned on, and the page looks unrecognizable as a list of clickable category words.
Use a Privacy-Focused Search Engine
The reason that Google’s core services are free is because our browsing habits are the company’s product. Google collects data about all of us and then uses that data to charge others to show us specific ads. It’s a very lucrative business in which we can choose to no longer participate.
Alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo and StartPage have received lovely press for their approach to protecting your data. StartPage, in particular, makes clear that they neither save nor log any data. However, both companies are now owned by companies in the US, which makes them subject to US laws. Additionally, neither company makes their code available as open-source, the gold standard when it comes to matters of privacy and security.
Enter SearX, makers of the free and open-source search engine that you’ve probably never heard of. Unlike Google, StartPage, Bing, or DuckDuckGo, Searx isn’t a central website: it’s a distributed (or “federated”) set of instances, any of which you can choose to use for your searches.
To find a server that meets your needs, go to the Searx server list page. Choose a server with top security settings by using the settings as I’ve done in the image below: select only A+ ratings on servers and those that also offer IPv6:
For those wanting the fastest speeds (search results in 0.387 seconds) choose the https://searx.bbaovanc.com/ server which resides in the US. For those seeking a server in a country with better privacy and security laws, consider the https://searx.olymp.to/ server, residing in Germany.
99 percent of all mobile malware is targeted at Google’s Android operating system. Part of the problem for this might be — as Google has admitted — that Android users don’t frequently update their smartphone and tablets. By comparison, Apple constantly reminds users to update their iOS devices when a new version is made available. That causes iOS users to adopt new upgrades very quickly.
Because Android is an open ecosystem, Google can only push updates to Google devices. It must then rely on Samsung, Huawei, and other vendors to push updates to their Android devices. That kind of fragmentation is hard, if not impossible, to overcome. By comparison, Apple creates and manages all of its hardware and software, so it can push updates to all of its users and devices.
If security is one of your top priorities then choose your hardware and software wisely: they’ll both play a part in how you learn to develop best practices for keeping yourself safe, private, and security from any unwanted, digital intrusions.