Privacy Apps Don’t All Measure Up

A look at several mobile apps (for Android and iPhone) that make empty promises to protect your privacy

Privacy App IconsThe best advice when it comes to privacy and photos and videos is “don’t take a photo that you don’t want your boss/parents/grandparents to see” but this advice is rarely heeded. In a cheap attempt to profit from people’s privacy worries there are several apps on the market that promise to protect your dignity from prying eyes. Here I take a look at several such apps and demonstrate how they fail to measure up…

Google Play Store - Secret PicturesFirst up I tested “Secret Pictures” which describes itself as “Prevent your pictures from letting others know! … Pictures vanish from Gallery and are locked behind easy-to-use PIN pad. Protect your private pictures … Secret Pictures locks your private pictures with your PIN. Only you can see the pictures in Secret Pictures.” which all makes it sound very much like your pictures are protected, hidden from view, secured, etc, etc.

All it does is move photos to a poorly hidden directory from where the photos can be viewed and shared, all it takes is a file browser!

Google Play Store - Picture SafeNext is PhotoSafe which describes itself as “Protect Your Privacy! … No one touches your private data without permission!” again it gives a definite impression that your hidden photos are safe from prying eyes.

Again the app moves your photos but this time the directory is not even hidden. Instead they rename the file in a weak attempt to disguise it, putting some extra characters after the file extension.  You can either rename the file or instruction the phone that the file is an image and again it is viewable and shareable just like normal photos.

Google Play Store - KeepSafeThen we have KeepSafe Vault which describes itself as “Best hide pictures & video app on Android … Selected pictures vanish from your photo gallery, and stay locked behind an easy-to-use PIN pad. With KeepSafe, only you can see your hidden pictures. Privacy made easy!” you start to see a recurring theme in the empty promises these apps offer.This one has similar failings as the first two apps, using a weakly hidden directory and renaming the images, again easily overcome with nothing more than a file browser.

Google Play Store - SnapchatSnapchatis a little different in that it doesn’t promote itself as a security or privacy tool, more of a communication tool, but the intention is quite clear. It lets you send a photo to someone but only let them see the photo for a few seconds before it’s deleted from their phone.The first problem is that the recipient has to be using the same app which limits its usefulness, but also tells the recipient that the message they have received is probably of some juicy nature. The second problem is that it’s trivial to take a screen capture on most phones which means the recipient then has their own copy of that photo you didn’t want them to keep or share…

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some apps which live up to their promises although they all seem to come with some measure of trade-off. You really don’t get something for nothing when it comes to apps.

Google Play Store - Disk CacheHide Pictures & Text Messages lets you hide or encrypt almost anything on your phone including photos, videos, contacts, text messages, and other apps. For once when they say they encrypt the content they actually mean it. You can still browse to the directory where files are stored any attempt to open them outside of the app results in a   Load failed!   error message. The app even lets you hide its own iconso people won’t even know that you have an app for hiding stuff!All this functionality does come at a price though. After an initial number of free uses you have to pay in order to be able to encrypt or hide further files. Due to the extra functionality you will also need to hand over a lot of access permissions to your phone. Given that you’re looking to boost your security and privacy you may have reservations about this.

Google Play Store - Private GalleryAnother promising looking app is Private Gallery which also seems to actually encrypt your photos meaning they can not be viewedoutside of the app.This app is entirely free but is supported by adverts from an ad network that compromises on security. The app also asks for some permissions which seem unnecessary given the functionality such as being able to dial numbers and view/edit your browser history. Again, if you’re in the market for added security and privacy then these niggles may concern you.

Google Play Store - VaultyThe last app I tried was Vaultywhich also seems to live up to its promises. Vaulty looks a little more considerate in that it asks for a more acceptable list of permissions. It also offers a decent balance of functionality in the free version, with optional extras in paid-for plugins.Looking into the history of Vaulty highlighted a different problem although this risk applies equally to any app which encrypts your data. An automatic update from the developers borked the app for many users, rendering their encrypted files inaccessible. The fault was corrected in a rushed patch but it still demonstrates that should this happen again your privated files might not always be recoverable.

In summary then not all apps are created equal and two apps that seemingly offer the same service might in fact give very different levels of functionality. If you have sensitive information or photographs that you really don’t want others to see then perhaps the best option is to not put it on a device that others might use or that might easily be lost or stolen.

If you’ve seen or are using any other ‘privacy’ apps and you’d like an opinion on the level of privacy that they actually provide then drop me a line in the comments and I’ll see what I can do…