We are launching a new Privacy Breakdown of Mobile Phones "playlist" on Surveillance Self-Defense, EFF's online guide to defending yourself and your friends from surveillance by using secure technology and developing careful practices. This guided tour walks through the ways your phone communicates with the world, how your phone is tracked, and how that tracking data can be analyzed. We hope to reach everyone from those who may have a smartphone for the first time, to those who have had one for years and want to know more, to savvy users who are ready to level up.

The operating systems (OS) on our phones weren’t originally built with user privacy in mind or optimized fully to keep threatening services at bay. Along with the phone’s software, different hardware components have been added over time to make the average smartphone a Swiss army knife of capabilities, many of which can be exploited to invade your privacy and threaten your digital security. This new resource attempts to map out the hardware and software components, the relationships between the two, and what threats they can create. These threats can come from individual malicious hackers or organized groups all the way up to government level professionals. This guide will help users understand a wide range of topics relevant to mobile privacy, including: 

  • Location Tracking: Encompassing more than just GPS, your phone can be tracked through cellular data and WiFi as well. Find out the various ways your phone identifies your location.
  • Spying on Mobile Communications: The systems our phone calls were built on were based on a model that didn’t prioritize hiding information. That means targeted surveillance is a risk.
  • Phone Components and Sensors: Today’s modern phone can contain over four kinds of radio transmitters/receivers, including WiFi, Bluetooth, Cellular, and GPS.
  • Malware: Malicious software, or malware, can alter your phone in ways that make spying on you much easier.
  • Pros and Cons of Turning Your Phone Off: Turning your phone off can provide a simple solution to surveillance in certain cases, but can also be correlated with where it was turned off.
  • Burner Phones: Sometimes portrayed as a tool of criminals, burner phones are also often used by activists and journalists. Know the do's and don’ts of having a “burner.”
  • Phone Analysis and Seized Phones: When your phone is seized and analyzed by law enforcement, certain patterns and analysis techniques are commonly used to draw conclusions about you and your phone use.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive breakdown of CPU architecture in phones, but rather of the capabilities that affect your privacy more frequently, whether that is making a phone call, texting, or using navigation to get to a destination you have never been to before. We hope to give the reader a bird’s-eye view of how that rectangle in your hand works, take away the mystery behind specific privacy and security threats, and empower you with information you can use to protect yourself.

EFF is grateful for the support of the National Democratic Institute in providing funding for this security playlist. NDI is a private, nonprofit, nongovernmental organization focused on supporting democracy and human rights around the world. Learn more by visiting https://NDI.org.

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