iOS makes it easy to control which applications get access to your private information, including calendars, contacts, and photos. Ensuring that only specific apps can access your data will protect your privacy and ensure that developers don’t use your information in unauthorized ways. Let’s take a look at how to customize the privacy settings in iOS so that you can control these aspects on your own device.

The importance of privacy settings

Your mobile device contains all sorts of private data: from photos to contact information. Responsible developers can take advantage of this information to provide your apps with valuable integrations. However, non-responsible developers can also take advantage of this information, giving them access to your data (such as contacts, Facebook profile, and more). Once given access, applications can upload your data to servers without any additional permissions needed.

Privacy dialogs

When you install and run an application for the first time, and the app requests access to any of the privacy-restricted data items, you’ll get an alert (Figure A). It’s important to pay attention to these alerts.

Figure A

The privacy request catalog will automatically appear whenever an app requests access to protected aspects of iOS.

Only allow access if the information is required for the application to work. For instance, a Calendar will need access to your calendar data. However, if you notice a game or music app wanting access to your contacts, that could be a red flag — and you should deny this kind of access for an app that it doesn’t make sense for, even if it’s not using your data for a nefarious purpose.

Turning settings on/off

Turning on and off the various privacy settings on a per-app basis can be divided into three sections: The standard privacy controls (for calendar, contacts, and other system resources), social media access controls, and privacy controls for advertising. Let’s take a look at how to enable and disable access to applications for each of these below. To begin, navigate to Settings | Privacy (Figure B).

Figure B

The privacy section of Settings is the hub for controlling what data access apps can have.

Standard privacy controls

Here are the standard privacy controls:

  • Location Services (Wi-Fi, GPS, and Cellular real-time location gathering abilities)
  • Contacts (access to any and call contact information stored in iOS and iCloud)
  • Calendars (access to any calendars stored locally, synced, or available through various services such as iCloud or Google Calendar)
  • Reminders (access to any reminders stored in the Reminders app)
  • Photos (access to any photos stored or synced via iCloud to the device)
  • Bluetooth Sharing (ability for apps and games to share data over a Bluetooth connection)
  • Microphone (access to the microphone on the device to record or use as voice capture)

You’ll find that the Location Services is what is used by a lot of applications. Almost every app on your device will use it in some form or another: from geo-tagging your photos with a camera app, to providing you the ability to check in with Foursquare. See Settings | Privacy | Location Services (Figure C).

Figure C

Turning on and off access to system services is as easy as flipping the switches on and off.

In this section, you’ll see a listing of apps that can use location data on your device. Applications that have been previously accepted will have their switch flipped on, while apps that have location access rejected will have the switches flipped off.

Tapping into any privacy subsection will present you with a similar listing of apps that have access to the respective data, giving you the ability to enable or disable the service on a per-app level.

Social media privacy controls

iOS integrates with many social networks, including two of the biggest: Twitter and Facebook. As applications request access to certain services (location-dependent), then they’ll show up in the social network section of Settings | Privacy.

Tapping on one of the social networks (for example, Twitter), you’ll see a similar listing of apps that have access to the service (Figure D).

Figure D

Apps requesting social network permission can get access to your full social network, including full read and write of your feeds.

Now, social network access is a bit different. As apps request access to social networks, they can gain full control to your networks, letting them post data and read data (including private data) from the respective service. So, you always want to be careful with regards to the types of apps you give access to.

Depending on your country location, you may have access to other social networks (such as Weibo in China). If you have access to these country-specific networks, then they’ll also appear in this section if they’ve been enabled.

Advertising privacy controls

The final privacy controls that are available in the Settings | Privacy section is Advertising. Tapping this subsection (Figure E) gives you access to a switch that can limit the ability for ads to track you from application to application by giving your device a non-permanent identifier.

Figure E

Limiting advertisers can help keep down target ads that sometimes can seem a little creepy.

If you get a lot of target ads and no longer wish to receive them, then this is the switch for you: simply flip it to the OFF position to limit ad tracking. You can also manually reset the advertising tracking identifier in this section.

Preventing a data free-for-all

As you can see, iOS has user priorities in mind with the ability to limit what application can access so that apps don’t have a free-for-all with your personal data. I recommend going through the list of applications in this privacy section every month and turning off apps that you either (a) no longer use on a regular basis, or (b) turning off services for apps when you don’t need to use those features. This can help prevent your personal data from being shared between apps, and it can also prevent suspicious apps from sending personal data to a remote server.

Not all apps are bad, but there are a select few that could use your data for nefarious reasons. Always stay cautious when it comes to contacts, location, and microphone usage.

How do you protect your personal data and privacy on your iOS device? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.

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