Are Government Phones Monitored?
This information is current as of June 10, 2022.
We’ve all heard the latest joke about everyone having a personal FBI agent that monitors their phone, but is there any truth to it? For those who receive a free phone through an ACP or Lifeline plan, you may be asking yourself, are government phones monitored?
The truth is, most mobile phones are monitored somehow, whether they’re government phones or not. Most monitoring happens when we permit certain apps to track our location, contacts, internet browsing, and more. Companies collect this information and then legally sell it to the government and other large companies.
Luckily, there are some ways we can limit who and what monitors our phones. Keep reading to learn how to protect yourself from those sneaky spies today.
What Happens to a Phone When It’s Monitored?
Most of the time, we don’t even realize our phone activity is being monitored. Since most of the monitoring is happening through apps we use every day; it’s easy for it to hide right under our noses.
Your Information Is Gathered
When a phone is monitored, a company or person tries gathering information on its use and the user (AKA you). The data collected most often includes your location, who you talk to, and what you do on your phone. This information could calculate demographics, direct sales, or learn more about your activity.
For example, many companies may want to know who is using their service or app. Therefore they ask for their users’ date of birth and may use location tracking to see where their customers live.
You See Targeted Ads
This same information is used to target their advertisements to select groups of people.
For example, if you and your close friend share the same app and have unknowingly allowed that app to monitor your phone, the app will know when you two spend time together. In addition, by tracking your location, that app learns about your social circle.
Suppose your friend spent the day before Googling vacation hotspots in South Carolina. You’ll probably notice ads for South Carolina hotels on your app a day or so after seeing her.
The Government Monitors Suspicious Behavior
Finally, in extreme cases, government entities may monitor phones if they have enough suspicions and a warrant. But, again, this activity is saved for those with criminal behavior, so you shouldn’t be too worried about it if you aren’t participating in any suspicious activity.
Who Monitors Government Phones?
Most people may be afraid that the government is monitoring them. But unfortunately, we probably have more to fear regarding popular social media apps.
Monitored government phones work the same as non-government phones. The most critical aspects are who your provider is and what apps/websites you permit to use your information.
If you permit them to use your information, apps may monitor government phones. We’ll share below how to change these permissions to give you the privacy you want.
Websites you use may also monitor your browsing. For example, you know when you log on to a new website, it requires you to “Accept the Conditions” before proceeding? Well, that is one significant example of how we permit websites to monitor our activity without truly knowing it.
Most of us don’t read the fine print – granted, there is quite a lot! – and it turns into our consent so that companies can gather our information legally.
These companies use our data as a product. Other companies are dying to know what you’re looking at, for what reason, and how often. This allows businesses to sell products and services they know you’ll be interested in. Companies and the government can legally buy this information to learn more about customers far and wide… including you!
Why Does the Government Monitor Phones?
The U.S. government may monitor a phone, but this is only done under particular circumstances. For example, they can legally do so when buying general information about how you use your phone, as in the example above.
After 9/11, the Patriot Act made phone monitoring easier for the U.S. government because it should be used to stop terroristic acts. But, while most Americans initially accepted, after a few years, citizens began to want their privacy back.
Nowadays, if the government wanted to trace your phone, they would need a legal warrant that proves this monitoring is necessary. So unless you’re participating in any illegal behavior, it’s doubtful that the government would waste resources monitoring your phone.
Is It Legal for Others to Monitor Your Device?
Whether or not it’s legal to monitor a phone is a complicated question with many constantly changing answers.
If you want to track your spouse, for instance, and do not have explicit consent, then monitoring their device with a surveillance app would be illegal.
On the other hand, when you agree to the terms and conditions of certain apps, you agree to allow them to monitor your device. This includes location tracking and personal information such as what you purchase, who you are friends with online, and even what you eat.
This is seen with weather apps, which need your location to tell you what weather to expect accurately. Another big one is social media apps that can track whom you associate with.
In these examples, because you have given your consent by accepting the terms and conditions, it is not illegal for these companies to monitor your device.
When it comes to the U.S. Government, it is illegal for them to monitor someone’s device without a warrant; however, the government has found ways around this. For starters, let’s talk about data brokers.
Data brokers buy consumer information from apps and legally sell it to the government. This phenomenon is so new – especially with smartphones – that it isn’t technically illegal yet. Even so, there are growing lawsuits and privacy concerns around how legal and ethical it is for these companies to monitor your device and then share that information with groups like the government.
Currently, two laws are in place to protect consumers’ digital privacy: the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. Unfortunately, neither act has been updated to apply to smartphones, so for now, your information is free to sell.
How Do I Know If My Phone Is Being Monitored?
If someone has monitoring or spy software installed on your phone, it will begin to act strangely. For example, suppose suddenly, your battery starts draining extremely fast, and your phone overheats constantly. In that case, you may have spy software running in the background.
If you hear weird background noises while making a call, someone may be listening in with a monitoring tool.
Notice apps on your phone that you didn’t download or your device? Has an app started malfunctioning in strange ways, such as a flashing red or blue screen, an unresponsive device, or automated settings? This could be a sign you are being monitored.
Another sign is increased data usage. On its own, that is not fishy, but if your phone suddenly has all of this happening, something is not correct.
Regarding companies monitoring your phone, know that most apps are with location tracking and personal data information. The best way to find out is to read the terms and conditions you agreed to on the apps on your device and check your privacy settings.
Can I Stop My Phone from Being Monitored?
There are some ways you can stop your phone from being monitored – thank goodness! This is important to know, considering that almost every app on your cell phone is most likely:
- Tracking your location
- Monitoring your data
- Possibly making money off your data
The fastest and easiest way to stop being monitored is to switch your phone to airplane mode. This turns off your cellular data and Wi-Fi connection. Sometimes airplane mode also turns off GPS location-based features. Still, you can also manually turn off GPS tracking in Privacy or Location Settings. Under your “Settings” menu, you can see all apps that use your location and manually switch them off.
To be even more secure, you can use privacy browsers, a burner phone, or even turn your phone off and remove the battery.
Using Airplane Mode
When you use airplane mode, you will not be able to browse the internet, send texts or make and receive calls, but you won’t be monitored. Under “Settings” on your phone, airplane mode should be located near the top. You can turn airplane mode on and be safe from being monitored.
Changing App Permissions
On iPhone and Android phones, apps need permission to access specific data. So when you first download an app, it will ask for permissions for things like notifications, tracking your location, and using certain cookies. Cookies are pieces of information from certain websites that are stored on your browser (Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari, etc.).
For all these options, you can either:
- Not grant access
- Grant access only when using the app, or
- Fully grant access, and the app will never ask for permission again
- You also have the option of changing your decision under “Settings” at your discretion
You might have previously granted some permissions that you should reconsider, especially if you don’t want to be monitored. These include access to your microphone, camera, location, contacts, and SMS. You must change these permissions on each app by going to Settings and then Privacy. Then, click on the app and disable these permissions one by one.
Use Privacy Browsers
Privacy browsers are like private pages of the browser you already use on your phone. You can find privacy browsers on Safari, Google Chrome, and most other big-name browsers.
Using privacy browsers does not save your search history. They also don’t let your browser keep website cookies that may store personal information, like your username and passwords for specific sites.
To use privacy browsers on an iPhone, open Safari, click the Tabs button, click Private, then click Done.
On an Android, open the Chrome app, then tap More to the right of the address bar. A new Incognito tab will appear. Check for the Incognito icon on the top left. Many times incognito screens have dark or black backgrounds.
Use a Burner Phone
Burner phones are prepaid phones that you can buy without an ID. They aren’t connected to your name, address, or other personal information. These phones are usually cheap, older models that can be thrown away quickly, unlike a typical smartphone. You’ll be even less traceable if you buy a burner phone in cash.
Worrying about being monitored is normal, especially using a free government phone. Most monitoring, however, comes from apps and websites that we permit to use our information. By changing some of your phone’s settings and using incognito browsers, you can limit this type of monitoring and have a more private mobile experience.
Save Money on Your Wireless Phone Service
When you qualify for government benefit programs like SNAP, you may also be eligible for Lifeline or the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Both Lifeline and ACP are government-run programs that help low-income consumers receive free or heavily discounted communication services.
Click here to find out more and apply for this valuable benefit.