How to stop your smartphone from tracking your every move, sharing data and sending ads

Kim Komando

Your phone knows where you are standing or sitting at this moment. Most people know that. How else could you use GPS? While location tracking is essential for directions, it also helps big tech sell you things.

“Targeted advertising” is a massive phenomenon. Companies are eager to flood your screen with ads, which are primarily influenced by your day-to-day habits. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and many others make money off mobile ads, and they need this information to power their data-mining machines.

Why is your phone allowed to track you and share that data with unknown third parties? In short, you gave it permission. Typical data-sharing policies are buried within pages and pages of privacy policies and terms of agreements.

Companies usually have a reasonable explanation, such as Apple tracking personal calls and emails to prevent fraud, which many consider an invasion of privacy.

No matter what device you use, accessing the internet subjects you to behavioral tracking. If this practice bothers you, all hope is not lost.

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Here are some ways you can take action:

1. Tweak your phone's location settings

You can prevent iOS and Android from tracking you, but this process isn’t intuitive; the feature is buried inside privacy settings, and its default is to record your daily routine. Known as "Frequent Locations," it keeps track of where you are and how long you stay there. It even knows where you live and work based on how long you're there and the number of times you go.

If you find this unsettling, turn the feature off. Here are the basic steps, but depending on your specific model and operating system, you may need to look around a bit.

Turn off location settings on Apple Devices:

1.     Click "Settings"

2.     Go to "Privacy"

3.     Select "Location Services"

4.     Scroll down to "System Services"

5.     Choose "Significant Locations" to see the logged record of where you've been; de-select this to turn it off

You can also clear your history here by clicking "Clear History."

Change location settings on Android Devices:

1.     Open the App Drawer and go to "Settings"

2.     Scroll down and tap "Location"

3.     Scroll down and tap "Google Location Settings"

4.     Tap "Location Reporting" and "Location History" and switch the slider to off

5.     To delete your device's location cache, tap "Delete Location History" at the bottom of the screen under "Location History"

6.     Repeat this process for each Google Account you have on your Android device

2. Limit ad tracking

Ending location tracking may sound extreme, which is why you may prefer to combat the ads themselves. iOS and Android also provide built-in options to minimize and limit ad tracking.

These tools will not wholly stop companies from tracking your phone activities, and they won't limit the number of ads you see, but they will allow you to reset your advertising ID and unlink any targeted advertising profiles that are associated with your particular gadget.

Here's how to limit ad tracking on both iOS and Android:

iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch - Go to Settings >> Privacy >> Advertising >> Toggle "Limit Ad Tracking" to On. You can also reset your Advertising Identifier in this section to unlink any previous data associated with your ID.

Android – Go to Settings >> Google >> Ads >> Toggle on “Opt out of ads personalization”

3. Stop Google from tracking your every move

Google services have recently come under fire for storing your location data – even if you’ve tweaked the privacy settings on your iPhone or Android gadgets.

To turn off Google's location tracking for good, try these settings:

Turn off Web and App Activity:

1.     Sign in to your Google Account.

2.     Click on "Your personal info" in the "Personal info & Privacy" section.

3.     On the left-hand pane, click on "Manage your Google Activity" and select "Go To Activity Controls."

Here you can turn off the different types of data that are being saved to your Google account.

Pausing "Location History" doesn't completely turn off Google's location markers. Although it stops Google from adding your movements to your "Timeline," location data is still being saved on your "Web and App Activity."

This fun fact is important. To prevent location markers from being saved, you have to pause your "Web and App Activity" toggle, too. When this feature is paused, activity from all of your Google services won't be saved on your account.

4. Use a private browser on your phone

Many computer users are familiar with private web browsers. Lesser well-known are the browsers that allow you to search the internet on a mobile device anonymously.

One such app is Mozilla's free Firefox Focus app. This anonymous mobile web browser blocks advertising, analytics and social trackers by default. It also erases passwords and browsing history after each session.

The mobile versions of Google's Chrome and Microsoft's Edge also have incognito and InPrivate modes you can use.

If you don't want a mobile browser that's associated with the big data brokers, you can try the third-party app Dolphin browser.

If you're on a Samsung smartphone, you can also use the company's Samsung Internet app. This browser has a built-in ad tracking blocker that will keep other sites from tracking your online activity.

If you don't like the idea of Google recording all your search terms, alternative engines such as Yippy, DuckDuckGo and Ixquick don't track you as aggressively. 

5. Check your online accounts

The moment you create an account with a major company (e.g. Google, Microsoft or Facebook) you begin feeding them data about your location, personality and preferences. Their algorithms will track your every click, and data will be used for targeted ads or “relevant” posts.

Thankfully, these companies and most advertising firms give you tools to opt out of personalized ad tracking.

Google and Microsoft, for example, have account dashboards for privacy controls and for checking what it knows about you. Google revamped its ad settings to make it easier for you to understand and limit ad tracking.

Facebook likewise has options for turning off behavioral tracking to keep it from following you around the web. The company is also currently auditing its third-party apps, and they're now more accessible to view and control.

6. Opt out of ads

Believe it or not, you have the power to just opt out of interest-based advertising – or at least most of it. The Digital Advertising Alliance has a consumer choice page that lets you see which of its participating partners is currently using customized ads on your computer.

When you first visit the website, the Alliance will scan your computer. Once the scan is complete, you'll be shown a list of these partners.

From there, you can learn more about the practices these companies use for interest-based ads, and opt-out using "opt-out cookies" that are stored in your browser with your preferences.

It's important to note that doing this won't remove all of the ads that you see online. Advertisers just won't be able to serve you targeted ads.

7. Check your virtual assistants

With the rise of virtual assistants like Siri and Google Assistant, our smartphones are no longer used strictly for calls and chats — we can now use our voices to command these gadgets themselves.

However, when you utter these virtual assistants' wake words, the audio file of your voice command is uploaded and saved to Apple, Amazon or Google's servers for processing.

Chances are, as with any other tracking information, this data is likely anonymized and run through algorithms that look for behavior and patterns that can be used for targeted advertising.

8. Control permissions on your apps

Before you install apps, always check the permissions they will require on their Google Play or Apple App Store app page. Android phones will also give you a rundown of the permission requests upon installation of an app. iOS apps will typically show you a permission access pop-up upon using a feature that requires specific access to your gadget.

Sometimes apps ask for more information than they need. That information can then be sent to companies who might use it for advertising.

This is why checking your app permissions regularly is good practice. Not only will it give you more privacy control and stop apps from potentially from spying and abusing your trust, but it can also weed out apps that are continually running in the background, which can, in turn, improve your gadget's battery life.

What digital lifestyle questions do you have? Call my national radio show and click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to the Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet or computer. From buying advice to digital life issues, click here for my free podcasts.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to stop your smartphone from tracking your every move, sharing data and sending ads