Best Practices for Camera Privacy on Android

With smartphones increasingly becoming our closest “companions”, it is more important than ever to ensure that they are not compromising our security and privacy. In this post, we will cover some useful tips for restricting camera usage on your Android smartphone only for intended purposes.

Smartphone cameras have one major caveat compared to laptops – there is no indicator light for the camera. On top of that, apps with sufficient permission can use the camera even when the phone’s screen is turned off. While this feature has been somewhat restricted in newer Android versions, and has some useful edge cases (such as using your phone as a security camera), the overall situation is far from being privacy friendly. Luckily, the Android OS ships with a good set of privacy controls that we can utilize to lock down the camera. Read on to know how.

Android permission manager
Shady camera apps
System and app updates
Malware scanning
Phones with pop-up cameras

Use Android’s permission manager to check apps which have access to the camera

Newer versions of Android (10 and above) include a “permission manager” setting that gives you a centralized overview of which app has access to which permission. Older Android versions, which are still widely used, have something similar under the “App permissions” moniker.

👨‍🏫 The steps and screenshots mentioned below are applicable to the “stock” or unmodified version of Android. They will be slightly different for you based on the version, customization, and manufacturer of your Android phone. Due to the enormous variety of Android phones in the market, it’s impossible to include steps for all the customized variants. Look around in your phone for a bit, and you should be able to find the mentioned screens without much difficulty.

Open the ⚙ Settings app on your phone and go to 👁 Privacy > Permission manager. Tap to open 📷 Camera and you will see the list of apps which have access to it and the last time they used it. If you feel like any of these apps should not be using the camera, open it and change the permission mode to “Deny”.

It’s advisable to grant camera permission only to the following categories of apps:

  • camera apps (duh), including document/photo scanning apps
  • banking/payment apps
  • enterprise/workplace apps (if they request it)
  • internal/system apps

Social media and texting apps will often ask for the camera permission, but note that you can capture photos and videos on the main camera app and access them from the social media/messaging apps thanks to the “storage” permission. There’s no harm in granting camera access to the official apps of popular social media and messaging platforms, but if you can live without granting it, my recommendation would be to do so.

off on a tangent 📉

Some apps simply don’t function unless you grant all the permissions they’re demanding. If you want to continue using the app, you have little choice but to do what it’s asking. In these cases, use the golden rule for installing smartphone apps – if something can be done in a website instead of an app, always prefer the website. Services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Uber, Swiggy, Ola, Amazon, YouTube, etc. all have perfectly fine websites or “lite” apps, albeit with some missing functionality. In almost every case, websites are better than apps for privacy, security, and battery life. Modern browsers will even let you “install” these websites on your phone and have them work like regular apps. These “apps” are technically known as progressive web apps (PWAs).

Older versions of Android don’t have the permission manager, but they have a very similar page under ⚙ Settings > Apps and notifications (or just Apps) > App permissions. You can also check permissions of individual apps and revoke camera access if needed.

Avoid shady camera apps

You might have come across countless apps on app stores that claim to make your photos look prettier, uglier, fairer, younger, older, or turn your face into animated cartoons using “filters”. We are generally wary of these apps, as many of them are repeatedly found to ship with malware that try to steal data on your phone. There are definitely some good apps from well known companies like Adobe, Snapchat, Instagram, Snapseed, etc, and we recommend you to stick with these.

Install software and app updates when available

Updates for Android and apps often include security fixes, so it’s important to install them when notified. Google’s Play Store automatically installs app updates when you’re on an unmetered Wi-Fi connection. If you’re always on a mobile data connection (or a metered Wi-Fi network), go to Play Store > My apps and games, and install available updates.

You phone will notify you when there are new system updates – go ahead and install them as well.

Occasionally scan your phone for malware

Most Android phones ship with an “anti-malware” that keeps an eye on installed apps and notifies you if it finds anything suspicious. Google Play Protect is the most popular anti-malware, while some smartphone vendors use their own custom solutions. Play Protect provides a good baseline protection, but it’s a good idea to scan your phone with a third party anti-malware once in a while. Think of it as taking a second opinion.

Kaspersky and BitDefender are good options to consider. Install either of these and run a full manual scan. If they find something bad, let them remove it.

Android phones usually have good security out of the box, so we don’t recommend using an anti-malware app 24×7. Just install them once a month or so to run a scan, and uninstall when done.

Get a phone with pop-up cameras (not really)

Software protections are often good enough to keep your phone safe, but nothing really beats an actual physical barrier that blocks the camera lens when it’s not being used. Some Android phone manufacturers have recently come up with models that have a “pop-up” camera – it stays hidden inside the phone chassis and will pop-up mechanically when you open the camera app. There are a few options if you’re in the market for a new phone. Unfortunately, the trend doesn’t seem to be catching up, and such models are quickly petering out from the catalogs. Of course, there’s the simpler and cheaper option of throwing your phone under something solid (like a book or a pillow) when you’re not using it.

What are your favorite privacy and security tips regarding smartphones and tablets? Let us know in the comments.

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