September 20, 2020

Beware of notification previews on your phone

We get a lot of information pushed at us daily. I won’t even debate here the number of notifications that some people have enabled. It horrifies me to see their phone constantly beeping, most of the time interrupting for no urgent reason. I’m not judging, each person is free to do whatever they want.

Aside from this, there’s one thing that I see all the time, and it’s, in my opinion, a privacy and security concern. Your phone displays all incoming notifications with the full text, even if the phone is unlocked. I understand why people like it. It’s simple to receive a text from someone and glance at it quickly and see what it is. But as you can glance at it, so can everyone else.

 

The privacy issue

Let’s think about a hypothetical example. You’re having lunch with a group of friends. Nowadays everyone has their phone at the table at all times, so there’s that. One of the phone beeps. Since our phones became dopamine delivery systems, all of us will look at the source of the sound automatically thinking it’s our phone. Some people will be able to glance at the preview. It can be anything written there, and you’re displaying it to everyone to read.

I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t you exaggerating a bit?

Why I’m not exaggerating

To prove my point, notice the notifications that arrive from now until the end of the day and think if you would like for anyone to be able to see them. Text messages from your spouse. Your Twitter DMs. WhatsApp messages. Corporate emails (these will contain a subject and some lines of text). 2-factor authentication tokens. All of them display small previews with information. This last example is worse because you’ll see something like this, even if your phone is unlocked:

Someone doesn’t need to unlock your phone to get the code. I know that, for them to access your Twitter account, they still need your password, but 2-factor authentication was put into place to protect it further, not less. If someone steals your phone, it’s the same as not having 2-factor authentication enabled.

What can you do?

iPhones (I’m sure Android has it too) have granular control to deal with previews, and the best part is that once you unlock the phone, the text becomes visible for all notifications at once. It’s only when your phone is locked that the information is invisible and that’s the critical part.

Managing Notification Previews

Just do the following:

  1. In your iPhone “Settings” select ”Notifications.”
  1. Scroll to messages
  1. Check the ”Show Previews”
  1. Change it to ”When Unlocked.”

The option was selected correctly:

When Twitter sends you a message, you’ll see something like this instead:

You know who’s from (in this case it’s probably a 2-factor authentication token) and once you unlock you can see:

With this, your phone will display the full text from all notifications received.

You can apply the same strategy to all apps installed on your phone that send notifications. To do so, go over the most sensitive ones and show previews only when unlocked.

Still not convinced

The point is to protect your privacy. There’s a lot of times that notifications arrive with sensitive information and you’re not even near your phone to see them. Other people may be, and, they can still see the information that you may want to keep to yourself. It’s a simple change, and with the speed of unlocking our phones nowadays there’s no real reason not to do it.

 

Have a suggestion of your own or disagree with something I said? Leave a comment or interact on Twitter and be sure to check out other privacy-related articles here.

Feature Image by Bruno Reyna on Unsplash

Manuel Gomes

I'm a Project Manager with experience in large projects and companies. I've worked in the past for companies like Bayer, Sybase (now SAP) and I'm currently working for Pestana Hotel Group.

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