Posted on: Aug 04, 2014By Michael Cindrich

Taking active steps to protect your own digital privacy is vastly important. Your home computer, laptop, smart phone, and tablet all contain swaths of private personal information. Many of these devices not only contain your personal messages, contacts, and photos, but can also track your geographic location, web browsing history, passwords, and a load of other sensitive information.

The first and most obvious step is to setup a login password or pin number on your phone. This feature is available on most smartphones including iPhone (iOS) and Android devices. The second step is encrypting your data. Passwords are important as they keep out most snooping individuals from immediately accessing your information. However, with a bit of time and ingenuity, it is very simple to overcome the password lock on most phones and access the stored data directly. Fortunately, the second step of encrypting your data makes it much more difficult for any prying eyes to access.

Cell Phone Data Protection

Cell phone data protection is extremely important for a variety of reasons.  For example, consider an individual who is stopped for a minor traffic violation. Police then smell the odor of marijuana in the vehicle and decide to conduct a search.  The police search the vehicle and find no additional evidence of marijuana, but do find a cell phone. The Supreme Court recently ruled that cell phones may not be searched without a warrant. However, once a warrant is obtained, any and all data from that phone is available to law enforcement, whether they have the password or not. This is because a login password only protects information on the phone from someone attempting to access it on the actual phone itself.

The trouble here is that anyone using data recovery software can still access almost all of the information on the phone by directly downloading the data and circumventing the screen lock password. With cell phone encryption, most of your data is still safe and secure until a snooping individual or law enforcement officer obtains the encryption password via subpoena or some other means. Without  possessing the encryption password, all the encrypted information is safe from even the most aggressive snooping individual (just make sure you understand what data is and is not encrypted).

Why Does Encryption Protect My Cell Phone Data?

The data that has been encrypted is essentially scrambled and unreadable by anyone without the password. The actual data files can still be accessed, but the information is illegible. Imagine a game of Scrabble where all of the tiles on the board have been flipped over so the letters are facing down. Sure, you can still see the tiles, but until the “password” has been entered those tiles will remain flipped upside down and unreadable. There are a ton of resources available on how exactly encryption works from a technical standpoint, particularly AES-CBC 128Bit, which is the default on most Android devices, and AES256, used on iOS devices.

How to encrypt an iPhone or other iOS device

iOS screen lock password does encrypt some of your sensitive data like emails and messaging, but this data may not be 100% protected. In addition, this still leaves a huge amount of unprotected data, which may include your location history, a map of every step you take anytime you have your phone with you, as well as many other communications, photos, or files from some third party apps; phone call logs; and countless others. Setting up a password for iOS is relatively simple:

  1. Press Settings > General > Passcode.
  2. Follow the instructions to create a passcode for your device. DO NOT forget this password, because if you do, the protected data will be permanently inaccessible to anyone. Keep in mind the “protected data” is limited and you should be aware of any unprotected data still on your phone.
  3. Once the passcode is set, scroll down to the bottom of the screen and check to be sure “Data protection is enabled” appears.

Additionally, you should also encrypt your iPhone backup file within iTunes if you use it. Encrypting in iTunes simply requires you to navigate to the iPhone screen and check the box “Encrypt iPhone Backup.”

Beyond the methods mentioned above, more extensive encryption is available for other iPhone features from some third party apps like: Signal, for encrypting voice calls, or Silent Circle, for VoIP/IM/PGP-based Email and videoconferencing.

How to encrypt Android devices

Unlike iOS devices, an Android screen lock password does not protect your data with encryption. On Android devices you must select to have the phone’s data irreversible encrypted, again be sure not to lose or forget this password otherwise data will be lost and entirely inaccessible by ALMOST anyone. From your Android device, for example a Nexus 5:

  1. Go into Settings > Security > Encrypt Phone
    • Follow the instructions to create an encryption passcode for your device and continue.
  2. Plugin your phone charger, this step is very important because if the battery dies during the encryption process you could end up losing all your data.
  3. Wait while the phone reboots and irreversibly encrypts your data, this step can take up to an hour.

How to encrypt Windows Phone, Blackberry phone, or others

Other devices may vary slightly from the iOS and Android instructions above. For additional instructions for other phones: Android, Blackberry, Windows, etc., please ask in the comments section. Remember, this is only the very first step to understanding data privacy and encryption. On any platform you should be certain you are aware of what information is and is not secure. Hundreds of factors go into data protection including the type of encryption algorithm, when and where the data is encrypted, what application the data is created in, and where the information is being sent intentionally. Each of those areas create a potential access point for breach so please know your personal data, how it is protected, and why that is important.