When you enable flight mode on your phone, you’re cutting all wireless connections. But is that enough to stop your device tracking you?
What is flight mode?
Flight mode, also known as aeroplane or airplane mode, is a device setting that disables all wireless transmissions networks. You’ll find flight mode on phones, tablets, laptops, and other smart devices, letting you quickly switch off all incoming and out-going connections.
Once flight mode is active, your phone cuts:
GPS – phones that no longer receive GPS signals won’t be able to use location-sharing apps, like Google Maps
Wi-Fi – your phone will instantly disconnect from any Wi-Fi network, and no longer scans for new networks
Bluetooth – all Bluetooth devices, from headphones to keyboards, will disconnect
Cellular network – you’ll no longer be able to make calls, send texts, or use mobile data
Why use flight mode?
Flight mode is necessary since a phone’s RF signals can cause interference with aeroplanes and hospital equipment. This is usually just recorded as radio distortion, so it’s a precautionary measure, letting you quickly disable wireless functions without switching off the device.
You’ll never be able to make calls once flight mode is on. However, you can choose to turn on Wi-Fi or Bluetooth independently – handy, given many airlines now offer free on-board Wi-Fi.
The mode can also save your battery from data-draining apps and constant network scanning. If you’re abroad, it offers a fast way to prevent expensive data roaming charges. And, by switching it on, you can make sure you’re working in a distraction-free environment.
But flight mode won’t stop you being tracked.
What are the risks of flight mode?
The most obvious downside to using airplane mode is creating a restrictive environment. Sure, you can still use your phone, but any apps that need access to internet services, like voice recognition or maps, are rendered unusable. If you’re trying to guard your data, that might not sound like a bad thing.
On the face of it, flight mode might seem secure – with no wireless transmissions, your phone is utterly disconnected from the online space. No-one knows who you are, where you are, or what you’re doing on your device. For professionals in the security industry (or even just the data-conscious consumer), flight mode seems like the perfect solution.
Don’t be fooled.
Even when flight mode is on, your device continues to collect data about you. One test for Fox News even suggested that a flight-mode phone gathered more data than one that was fully functional. Your data is then stored away.
The second your phone reconnects to a wireless network, all that information is uploaded.
These logs include app usage, and when your phone’s screen was unlocked. It’s entirely possible for a phone to estimate your approximate location with GPS turned off. That data is shared, too. If it’s switched on always assume your phone knows everything.
How to enable flight mode on Android and iPhone
The easiest way to enable ‘aeroplane mode’ on Android is to open the Quick Settings dropdown menu by pulling down from the top of the screen.
Tap on the aeroplane icon – if you don’t see it on the first screen, swipe left for more options.
Aeroplane mode is now on. The button turns a solid colour, with an aeroplane icon now sitting next to the battery symbol.
Alternatively, open Settings, and select ‘Network and Internet’.
Locate ‘Aeroplane mode’ and press the toggle button to switch on.
You can now choose to turn on internet without turning off flight mode by tapping the Wi-Fi toggle button.
To keep Bluetooth on in flight mode, go back to Settings and select ‘Connected devices’, then ‘Connection preferences’.
Toggle Bluetooth to on.
Just like Android, you can swipe down from the top of your iPhone to open the Control Centre.
Tap the aeroplane symbol to activate.
While in the Control Centre, you can tap the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth buttons to turn these on during flight mode.
You may also open Settings, select either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and set each to on.
How to see your data
Data privacy is a serious topic – and many countries have brought in laws, such as GDPR, to regulate how companies like Apple and Google collect, store, and access your data. As part of the global data-privacy drive, you have the legal right to request to see what information a company holds on you.
Sign into your Apple ID account or privacy.apple.com and find the ‘Data & Privacy’ section. Click ‘Manage your data’.
Here, you can choose to view a range of data, from device info to Wallet activity and marketing communications. You may request an email copy of the data Apple has collected, and deactivate or delete your Apple ID.
Apple also supports App Tracking Transparency, which gives users control over which apps can log your activity.
The quickest to make changes to your privacy settings is to visit Google’s Privacy Check-up.
For other data requirements, sign into your Google Account. Then click on the box ‘Privacy & personalisation’ or select ‘Data and privacy’ from the side-bar.
You can control all sorts of activity here, but first go to ‘Things you create and do’ and press ‘Go to Google Dashboard’.
On your Google Dashboard, you can choose to ‘Download your data’ or ‘Delete a service’.
Below this are other recently used services, like Gmail and Payments. Beneath each, you can view, download, or delete the data.
How to avoid being tracked by your phone
Because data is big business, it can be extremely hard stopping information getting into the hands of companies like Google and Apple – after all, it’s a major source of revenue for them.
There are only sure-fire three solutions to prevent device tracking.
Take out the battery – even with your phone turned off, some data will be collected, such as when the phone is turned on. By completely removing power from the device, there’s no way for it to function.
Leave it at home – the nuclear option. If you’re concerned about your privacy, ask, do you need it on you? What alternative communications are available?
Third-party security solutions – running security solutions on your device will help you stay compliant and keep data secure.
You should always assume you’re being tracked – even with flight mode switched on. Stay safe.