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How to lock down your Android phone

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Douglas Crawford, cyber-privacy researcher at ProPrivacy.

All mobile phones have limitations when it comes to privacy and security, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to improve the situation.

1. Use a VPN app

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) app connects your phone to the internet via an intermediary server. This server blocks any website you visit from being able to see your real unique internet (IP) address, or who your internet provider (ISP) is.

It also blocks the view from the other direction. A VPN securely encrypts data as it travels between your phone and the VPN server, so your ISP also cannot see the contents of that data.

What your ISP doesn’t know, it’s very unlikely that federal or government agencies will know either.

Although the primary benefit of using a VPN app is privacy, the encryption used between a phone and a VPN server also improves security by making it impossible for a hacker to access your data when connected to public hotspots – even if the hacker completely controls the hotspot!

Android users should be careful to pick established and android VPN services, however, as many free VPN apps are simply not safe, even when downloaded from the Play Store.

2. Encrypt sensitive files

Since Android 7.0 (Nougat), only the most low-end phones, primarily targeted at developing markets, do not employ on-the-fly file encryption. Indeed, as of this year, even low-end devices will benefit from Android’s new Adantium encryption mode.

That said, Phone-hacker firm Cellebrite’s own website makes clear that some modern phones remain more secure than others. It explicitly states that its software can access data stored on Google flagship Pixel 3 XL phone, while Samsung S8, S9, S10, or any Note phones are not mentioned anywhere.

Broadly speaking, data on most Android phones can be (and routinely is) accessed without their users’ consent, encryption or not.
This makes it vital to encrypt sensitive files on your phone. Some Samsung, Huawei, OnePlus, Oppo, Viovo, and Xiaomi phones allow you to store files and apps in a specially encrypted folder for additional protection.

Alternatively, the open source EDS/ EDS Lite app store files in a secure VeraCrypt container on your phone, while and Cryptomater (also open source) encrypts data locally, as well as securely syncing it to the cloud.

3. Enable Lockdown mode in Android 9.0 Pie

The latest version of Google’s mobile OS introduces a handy new privacy feature. Once enabled, it allows you to instantly lock down your phone in such a way that you cannot be forced to unlock it.

Just hold down the power button for a few seconds to lock your phone with all biometric authentication methods to open it, such as fingerprint unlock, disabled. Smart Lock, which auto-unlocks your phone when connected to a trusted Bluetooth device or when connected to your home WiFi network, is also disabled.

To enable Lockdown mode go to Settings -> Security –> Lock screen preferences -> Show lockdown option (or Settings -> Lock Screen -> Secure Lock Settings -> Lock instantly with power key on Samsung phones).

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