How to Cover Your Smartphone’s Digital Footprints in Five Easy Steps
Did you know that every time you log onto Messenger or watch a video on IGTV, your phone is leaving a digital footprint? This footprint is like a digital trail of your activity; it can be used to compromise your privacy, track where you’ve been and even identify you. If your phone were to be lost or stolen, this could place you in a difficult situation. In this guide, we'll outline the five simple steps you can take today to clear your phone’s storage and prevent it from storing or logging data.
Step #1. Delete your search history
To begin to clear your phone’s digital footprint, you’ll need to delete your search history. As the majority of apps store data both locally and in the cloud, you’ll likely need to delete your search history across multiple platforms. The way to do this differs between Android and iOS.
Android users should head to their Google activity history page via any web browser. Tap on the three lines in the top left-hand side (the menu) and then tap ‘Delete activity by’. This handy feature lets you erase your search history across all Google-linked products and devices. You can delete activity according to ‘topic’, ‘product’, and by date. To delete everything, simply select ‘All Time’ under the ‘Delete by date’ tab and then tap the blue ‘Delete’ text at the bottom. This will delete your entire search history on both the Android and Google search engines.
iOS doesn’t have a comparable function but you can turn off the Spotlight feature that displays past searches as search suggestions. Simply head to ‘Settings’ and tap on ‘Siri & Search’. From here, you can turn off ‘Suggestions in Search’.
Step #2. Limit app logging
The second step in covering your smartphone’s digital footprints is to limit the extent to which apps can log your activities. Each app has its own approach to logging; some will stop tracking you if you ask them while others require you to use incognito mode.
There are thousands of apps on Google Play and they all have their own approach to logging. Your first step should be to check for either an ‘incognito’ mode or a ‘stop tracking’ feature within the app in question. I’ll outline each of these approaches using the examples of YouTube and Google Maps.
Enable Incognito Mode on YouTube
YouTube is a good example of an app that comes with an incognito mode. The latest version of YouTube for Android features an incognito mode that will prevent the app from tracking the videos you watch, although this isn’t yet available for iOS users. To activate this mode, open YouTube, and tap on your avatar in the top right-hand side of the screen. From here, you can choose ‘Turn on Incognito’.
Stop Tracking on Google Maps
On the other hand, Google Maps is a good example of an app that will track you by default. Maps will track your location and accumulate lots of data about your movements. To prevent this, head to ‘Settings’ within the Maps app and tap on the menu icon in the top left-hand side of the screen. Tap on ‘Settings’ (on Android) or the cog (on iOS). Select ‘Personal content’ and turn off the location history feature.
Manually clearing activity on Android
For any apps that have neither an incognito mode nor a stop tracking feature, you’ll need to clear your activity manually. Open ‘Settings’ and tap on ‘Apps & notifications’. Tap on the app you want to clear and then tap ‘Storage’, followed by ‘Clear Storage’. This wipes all data that an app has stored locally. When you use the app again, you’ll need to log in and set up your preferences, just as if you were installing it from scratch.
Manually clearing activity on iOS
As we mentioned, incognito mode for YouTube on iOS is in the works and the process for cleaning Google maps is slightly different (see above). In terms of clearing apps manually, iOS doesn’t have a ‘Clear Storage’ feature like Android. You’ll need to delete an app to wipe all of its data and then reinstall it from the App Store. To do this, open ‘Settings’ and tap ‘General’ followed by ‘iPhone Storage’ and select one of your apps before choosing ‘Delete App’. For obvious reasons, it’s impractical to do this often.
Step #3. Erase your messages
Chat histories and messages can preserve an astonishing amount of data, including your location, images, files and personal data. Sometimes it can be helpful to keep old messages that you can check back on from time to time. If you are concerned about your phone’s digital footprint, you are faced with three options:
- Delete old conversations manually
- Set a chat history to automatically erase after a set period of time
- Use a chat app with self-deleting messages.
Option 1: Manually deleting conversations
Some apps, such as Messages, don’t have an auto-delete feature. To delete a conversation manually in Messages, you have to long press on the conversation and then tap on ‘Trash’ in the top right of the screen.
Some apps, including WhatsApp, let you delete the entire history at once. Tap on ‘Settings’, then ‘Chats’, followed by ‘Chat history’ and then tap on ‘Delete all chats’.
Option 2: Set up auto-delete
iOS users can tap on the ‘Settings’ tab and go to ‘Messages’, followed by ‘Keep Messages’. Here, you can set messages to automatically disappear after 30 days. This is simpler than manually erasing conversations from the front screen by swiping left on the thread and then tapping the delete button.
Option 3: Use a self-deleting messaging app
Some apps, such as Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and Telegram Messenger, offer the option of sending self-deleting messages. Here’s a handy guide to these apps that will help you choose the best one.
Step #4. Go Incognito when browsing
The fourth step in covering your smartphone’s digital footprint is to start going incognito when you browse. Your smartphone’s web browser can help you cover your digital footprints if you enable the incognito or private mode. When you browse in this mode, your search history and page views will not be recorded.
For Chrome Users
To launch incognito in the Chrome browser, tap the menu item on the top right of the page. From here, choose ‘New incognito’. If you forget to set this up before you search, simply tap ‘Menu’, then ‘Settings’ and ‘Privacy’ to find the ‘Clear browsing data’ tab. This will clear all saved data and help to reduce your smartphone’s digital footprint.
For Safari Users
If you are an iPhone user who relies on Safari, you can make your browsing private by tapping on ‘Show pages’ within the browser. From here, tap on ‘Private’ and all browsing from that point forward will be private. Everytime you tap the ‘Plus’ button, the new window created will be private and there is no need to repeat these steps. As with Chrome, Safari lets you delete your data. Open the ‘Settings’ tab, tap on ‘Safari’ and then ‘Clear History and Website Data’.
But wait! Private browsing doesn’t make you invisible…
Chrome’s incognito mode and Safari’s private mode only prevent your device from storing your search history and data. Your internet service provider (ISP) will see your browsing and may log your online behavior as well. Social networks such as Facebook will also record your activity, even if you log into them in incognito or private mode. To truly hide your browsing behavior you’ll need to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Step #5. Use a VPN
The fifth and final way to cover your smartphone’s digital footprint is to use a VPN. Some browsers, such as Opera, have a free built-in VPN service. You can download Opera on Android and iOS handsets and enable the VPN by clicking on the menu icon (the red ‘O’ on the top right-hand side) and tapping on ‘Settings’. You’ll find VPN under the ‘Privacy & Security’ tab.
However, some VPN services also log your activity. To find the best VPN service, you’ll need to pick one with a strong ‘no-log’ policy. This guarantees that the company will not record or store any data about your handset or location on its service. I’d recommend Tech Radar’s recent review of the top no-log VPNs of 2018 to help find the best service, based on your budget, location and needs.
Overall, these five steps for covering your phone’s digital footprint will stand you in good stead. To summarize, we recommend always browsing in incognito or private mode, always using a messaging app with self-destructing texts, using a VPN and regularly wiping the search history on your handset.