2021 Android Phone Privacy Guide

Until recent years, Android was the top smartphone operating system in the United States of America. The convenience of a Google-linked device has made Android phones incredibly popular. Unfortunately, the connection to Google also means that Android phones collect a significant amount of user information. For Android, privacy isn't a big concern: user location, web history, emails, and more are all tracked by Google’s Android phones. But Android isn’t in a hurry to share this with users. It's up to individuals to uncover the truth about what their Android phones know about them.

Your Google Account & Why It Matters

While it is technically possible to use an Android without a Google account, the process is difficult and can only be done when the phone is first purchased. Every Android device is optimally functional when logged into a Google account. This is similar to how iPhones operate; users must create Apple IDs to make settings and information easily transferable between devices. A Google account, however, contains a wider range of information than an Apple ID because a Google account is not exclusively used for Android products.

Google accounts link to your Internet activity and search history. Your Android device uses Google Drive, Gmail and Google calendar under the same Google account. Unbeknownst to many users, none of the information entered on these Google account apps is completely private.

Because Google is connected to all Android phones, this applies to any phone you can buy that uses Android's technology. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the Google Pixel 4a, the Oneplus 8 Pro, and even the new Samsung Galaxy Z Fold all follow the same standards for information gathering via Google.

Given that Google knows so much, it's crucial that you protect your Android and Google accounts as well. Enable two-factor authentication, and take significant consideration in what app permissions you grant in your permissions manager.

Android Privacy: Photos and Contacts

While your Google account collects information on its own, your Android phone offers up even more data.

Your contacts are automatically uploaded to and synced with your Google account once you sign in on your Android smartphone. This means that any information you put into your contacts—names, phone numbers, emails, birthdays—is accessible to Google.

Photos taken on your phone, via the front cameras or rear cameras, also automatically back up to Google Photos. The camera system stores your photos to your device too. The backup is convenient for storage purposes but allows Google to have access to your images as well.

Should this be a concern to users? At minimum, it’s worth being cautious. Google states that they will not use photos uploaded to Google Photos for any purpose without getting permission from the owner.

However, Google’s Terms of Service state that Google technically and legally has the right to store, reproduce, publish, display and distribute the images user give. It’s safest to keep any sensitive or personal images far away from Google Photos.

Android Privacy: Text Messages

Text messages sent from Android devices are available to Google. However, they are encrypted, not just anyone can see the texts. Unfortunately, though, Google’s Android smartphones have come under serious fire for their text message encryption system. Apple's iMessage text system and messaging apps such as WhatsApp use secure end-to-end encryption, meaning encrypting the entire route of the message.

But Android's messaging system is only guaranteed to be secure between the phone and Google's system.  If Android users are messaging friends on another RCS provider then there is a chance for third-party interception of the messages. This is a huge risk to Android users, their privacy, and their safety.

Android Privacy: Billing and Bank Information

Android users also have access to a phone app called Google Pay. As the name implies, this app is the “one-stop-shop” for finances and payments. Users can add bank cards or credit cards to make purchases easily. Google will also keep track of your spending, monitor your purchases, and offer financial advice.

This, too, may sound like a really handy tool. But that’s a lot of sensitive information to save to your Android. Google Pay does promise that your personal financial data will be encrypted and that your credentials will never be shown to Google Pay, which is good. Nonetheless, this may be a service not quite worth the risk on your Android smartphone.

Android Privacy: GPS & Location Services

One of the most basic Android features is Location Services. Each variation of these services collects different information. For example, Google Maps takes the addresses you input to find directions and combines it with Location History to create a Google Maps Timeline.

The Timeline shows places you have been and routes you have taken to get there. It isn’t shared publicly or with any other Google users, but Google keeps a record of your location data for eighteen months.

With location history on, Google tracks your every move in order to recommend the most ideal travel routes based on traffic and share geographically-relevant search results. Location history includes the device’s current location, the direction of movement, the method of movement, and where the device is in terms of geographical boundaries. Enabling your Location History allows your Android phone to know where you are at all times.

Android Smartphones Even Know Your Phone Habits

Android phones are capable of knowing how much time you spend on your device in more ways than just how fast your battery life depletes. Digital Wellbeing, Android’s attempt to help users have a more balanced life, can tell users how much time they spend on their phone and on certain apps. Next time you plug earbuds into your headphone jack and fall into a rabbit hole on YouTube, you can't feel reassured that nobody will ever know—your phone already does.

A Word to Android Smartphone Users

Android smartphones keep records of more information than we realize through your phone and Google account. However, it’s worth recognizing that users still have some control over what they share through their phone’s settings. Our phones are both a help and a danger; Android devices are still a top pick for many users. But we can make them more useful than not if we make sure to take the proper precautions.