How To Secure Your iPhone From Hackers (and Anyone Else)

Apple launched the modern smartphone era in 2007 with its first iPhone, and it’s hard to remember what life was like before we had these handy gadgets.  The very idea of having a powerful, multifunction computer and personal communications device we could fit in our pockets was straight-up science fiction not too long before that. 

Now, our phones are so central to our lives that misplacing one’s phone is as heart-stopping as misplacing our wallets used to be.  In fact, because we keep so much of our lives on our phones, they’ve become a significant point of vulnerability to hackers and scammers.  While you yourself may not be a high-profile celebrity target, criminals make most of their money from ordinary people like you.  We’ve written before about what to do after you’ve been hacked, but it’s better yet to protect your phone in the first place. 

This is our guide to securing your iPhone from threats, and Android users will find their corresponding guide here

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Context: Apple Does a Lot of the Heavy Lifting

It’s easier for Apple to secure iOS and iPhones than it is for Google to secure Android, because Android is (at least partially) an open-source platform.  Anyone can license Android and build a phone for it, and manufacturers have the option of modifying Android’s default appearance with their own tweaks to the interface. 

Apple takes the opposite tack, maintaining full control of the hardware and software from the earliest design stages.  That means security can be “baked in” at the hardware level and that iOS and the underlying silicon can be designed in tandem to harden each other against intrusion. 

The exception to Apple’s iron control is the third-party apps that make up most of the App Store.  That ecosystem was essential to Apple’s success (“There’s an app for that”), but it also represents a vulnerability.  Apple goes to significant lengths to make sure that apps in the App Store are safe, come from legitimate developers, are free from malicious code, and adhere to Apple’s mandatory privacy standards. 

In short, before you ever open the box, Apple does much of the work of securing your phone.  Despite that, every year reveals new vulnerabilities in the platform (hackers are pretty smart, too!), so it’s still on you to help keep your iPhone as safe as possible.

iPhone Security Basics

There are a handful of basic, fundamental things you can do to secure your phone, so we’ll start there. 

Applying Your iOS Updates

Remember those “new vulnerabilities” we spoke about a moment ago?  Updates to iOS aren’t just about features and bug-fixes, they’re also how Apple protects you against newly discovered hacks and vulnerabilities.  Depending on the age of your device, you might choose a newer version of iOS or the latest update to your existing version, but — either way — being up to date is fundamental to your phone’s security.  Yes it’s an inconvenience, and yes it takes time, but it’s worthwhile.  We promise. 

Updating Third-Party Apps

Updates to your third-party apps are just as important, because each app is also a potential source of hacks or privacy breaches.  By default, any app you’ve downloaded from the App Store will update automatically, but you can manually update — if necessary — by opening the App Store, tapping your profile icon and then tapping Update All or updating individual apps as necessary. 

Tweaking Your Lock Screen

Your lock screen is like the lock on the front door of your home, and you can tweak it to make it more secure.  Go to Settings and then Face ID & Passcode (Touch ID & Passcode on older devices), and — if it’s not already enabled — tap Turn Passcode On.  Even if you use Touch ID or Face ID, a passcode locks down key security functions like restarts, configuration profiles and (of course) passcode settings. 

A six-digit passcode is better than four digits, and in Passcode Options you can go a step further by setting up a full alphanumeric password.  It’s kind of a pain to enter a password all the time, but it’s much more secure (and a lot better than identity theft).  This is the very first and foremost of iPhone privacy settings.

iPhone Privacy Settings and Security Tweaks

Once those basics are taken care of, you can move on to more meaningful privacy and security tweaks.  You’ll need to dig deeper into your iPhone settings, but these tweaks are within the abilities of any user. 

Reviewing and Fine-Tuning App Permissions

Apps sometimes need access to your iPhone’s hardware and data.  If you’re going to Zoom with someone, for example, the app will need your mic and camera.  To see and change the permissions for your installed apps, tap Settings and then Privacy.  You’ll see a list of features — Location Services, Contacts, Camera, Health and more — and for each of those permissions, you can tap to see which apps have access.  If you aren’t comfortable with a specific app having that access, you can turn it off.  

You can also go to Privacy and then Tracking to see which apps have requested permission to track you.   You can turn tracking on and off for individual apps, or turn off the Allow Apps to Request to Track toggle (at the top of your screen) to refuse tracking for all apps. 

Removing Unused Apps

It’s true that for almost anything, “There’s an app for that.”  That doesn’t mean you’ll keep using the app indefinitely, of course, and — since each app on your phone represents a potential source of vulnerabilities — it makes sense to periodically scroll through the apps on your phone and delete any that you’re not using

Enabling Find My iPhone

An iPhone that’s missing or (potentially) stolen obviously represents a high risk, and turning on Find My iPhone can help you manage those risks.  Tap Settings, and then Find My, and the first option on the next screen will be Find My iPhone.  Set the toggle to “On,” if it isn’t already.  The Send Last Location option means your phone will use the last of its battery power to let Apple know where it is (so you can find it from another device once the battery is dead). 

That way, if your phone goes missing, you’ll be able to locate it or — if necessary — delete its contents. 

Leveraging FaceID (or TouchID) for Added Security

Earlier we suggested using a passcode or password to increase the security of your lock screen (beyond FaceID alone), but you can also use FaceID — or TouchID on older devices — to improve security for many accounts and apps.  Passwords can be guessed or stolen, but if an app or account can work with FaceID you should set it up to do that as an additional form of authentication. 

Securing Accounts With MFA

Your apps and accounts won’t necessarily all support FaceID, but most will support some additional form of multi-factor authentication (MFA), also sometimes called two-factor authentication (2FA).  The best-known version of this is a code texted to your phone, but third-party authentication apps and even hardware “keys” are also options. 

If you’re using iOS 15, Apple now has its own authentication process that works the same way as third-party apps.  There’s a bit of copying and pasting involved, but it’s pretty straightforward. 

How To Secure Your iPhone From Hackers (the Advanced Stuff)

There are several ways you can take your iPhone’s security to another level, if you have the expertise (or know someone who does).  A few of these include: 

Installing Malware Protection

Apple’s control of the App Store means you’re unlikely to get a virus or other malware through that avenue, but there are others to look out for.  You almost certainly use your iPhone to browse the internet, to receive messages or to access public Wi-Fi.  Those are all among the countless ways you can still get infected by malware, despite Apple’s best efforts.  Installing third-party malware protection can help protect you from those threats (and sometimes, your own bad habits). 

Using an Alternative Browser

Safari is a reasonably privacy-conscious browser (especially compared to Chrome’s data-slurping habits), but it’s not the end-all.  If you’d like a more serious approach to online privacy and low-profile browsing, consider a more explicitly privacy-centric browser like Brave or DuckDuckGo (or Tor, if you’re really hardcore about it). 

Using a VPN

Public Wi-Fi isn’t encrypted, which means busy cafes and shopping centers are prolific “fishing spots” for scammers and criminals, who can grab a lot of data from unwary mobile users.  One way to protect your online activity is with a virtual private network, or VPN.  We’ve written about those before: A VPN essentially gives you your own private tunnel through the chaos of public networks and the internet. 

You’ll find plenty of free and paid VPN apps in the App Store, so compare features and reviews to find one that does what you want. 

Develop Good Security Habits

Any combination of the settings and tweaks we’ve listed here will make your iPhone more secure, but ultimately — more than anything — it’s your own attitudes and habits that have the biggest impact on phone security. 

That doesn’t mean you should be paranoid about using your iPhone, just that training yourself to be security-conscious (and to maintain an attitude of healthy skepticism in general) can help a lot.  We’re talking about things like: 

  • Not using your banking app or other sensitive apps while you’re on public Wi-Fi.
  • Being physically aware of the people around you, in case anyone’s “shoulder surfing” in the hope of seeing your passwords or personal information.
  • Not leaving your phone lying around, especially in public places. 
  • Being wary of links in potential phishing texts and emails (that’s how Jeff Bezos’ phone was compromised, and he’s a pretty smart guy). 
  • Recognizing that random money requests from friends or family on Venmo, Cash App and similar apps are often scams. 

Just as importantly, leverage your Spokeo membership (whether through our app or the website) to protect yourself.  When you receive an email or a text you’re unsure about, use Spokeo’s tools to reverse search the phone number or email address to see whether it’s legitimate or not.  Are things going really fast with that person you swiped right on?  Search their name to find out if they’re really who they say they are or if you’re being catfished

It only takes a moment, but it can save you a world of grief.

Sources

Business Insider – The First iPhone Was Announced 13 Years Ago Today – Here’s How Steve Jobs Introduced It

Avast Blog – The Worst Celebrity Hacks

Apple Support – Apple Platform Security

Apple – Building a Trusted Ecosystem for Millions of Apps

Apple Support – Update Your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch

Apple Support – How To Manually Update Apps on Your Apple Device

Apple Support – Use a Passcode With Your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch

Apple Support – About Privacy and Location Services in iOS and iPadOS

Apple Support – Control App Tracking Permissions on iPhone

Apple Support – Delete Apps on Your iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch

Apple Support – Set Up Find My on Your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Mac

Apple Support – Use the Find My App to Locate a Missing Device or Item

Apple Support – Automatically Fill in Verification Codes on iPhone

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