While it can be super convenient to keep photos, videos, phone contacts, and other content on your iPhone, privacy can pose particular problems on smartphones. You don’t want people to see sensitive docs related to your job, do you? Maybe you’d like to maintain privacy, too, over pics of your “significant other,” or the unpublished phone numbers of friends. Consequently, apps are cropping up that are specifically geared to hiding your docs from probing eyes. In this article, we’ll take a close look at four of these so-called “privacy apps.”
Privacy issues are thornier on smartphones than on PCs. That’s true for a few different reasons. First, lots of folks take their phones with them everywhere. Secondly, phones get lost, stolen, or temporarily misplaced more often than other devices. Third, few smartphone owners want to bother with a device-level password, since that would add too many per-day authentications.
Meanwhile, recent news reports have sparked worries among some that developers of social (and other) apps might grab contact info — and maybe even complete photo albums — from iPhone users without permission.
First, a Few Helpful Things to Know
Before drilling down into the specifics of four currently-available privacy apps for iPhones, let’s consider a few things that are important to know about these apps in general. All of these factors are a function or how Apple’s iOS works, and doesn’t work.
Most significantly, while these apps will hide and password-protect the docs that you IMPORT into them, doing this importing doesn’t remove the original data. To get rid of the original photo or phone contact, for example, you will need to go into the iPhone’s built-in Photo or Contacts app and manually delete the information.
On a somewhat related note, if you use a “hidden” phone contact to place a phone call, that number will show up in the iPhone app log. The name of the person won’t appear, nor will any other contact info you’ve entered, but the phone number will be plainly visible to anyone who looks in the log.
To make sure that you don’t somehow lose important information, you should make either an encrypted or unencrypted copy of any photo or other doc that you’re hiding inside a privacy app. Also, be careful not to forget or lose your privacy app PINs. (Each of them uses a four-digit PIN, but some of the apps don’t include password recovery.)
Each of the four apps below is capable of hiding your sensitive information and password-protecting it. Some are able to work with photos only, while others are designed for both photos and other types of data. All of them offer some cool and unique features. Please keep in mind, though, that none of these four apps are perfect.
WhereMark’s Secret Life app lets you “hide” and password-protect pictures, Contacts, and notes made using the iPhone’s Notes app. You can also share hidden pics by emailing them or exporting them to a public album. In addition, Secret Life keeps track of successful and unsuccessful login attempts, so you might be able to tell whether anyone else is trying to access your info (and if so, whether they’ve been successful).
Beyond hiding your data from view outside of Secret Life, this app hides its own name and icon, too. The app installs under the name “SL Tac Toe,” with a tic-tac-toe icon. Unless someone looking at your phone knows about Secret Life, the person won’t even realize that this privacy app is aboard. (On the other hand, if you Search the iPhone for “secret,” the app will pop up as “SL Tac Toe.”)
In fact, Secret Life will let you play Tic-tac-toe, either against the app or against another (human) player. Once you start the app, you’ll get a “One player or two players?” screen. Tapping there will bring you to a beginner/advanced/expert –screen. Choosing a level there will brings you to a Tic-tac-toe board.
At this point, you can start playing Tic-tac-toe, or — now or at any point during the Tic-tac-toe game — you can hold a finger against the center of the Tic-tac-toe board for five seconds to call up an “Enter Password” screen. Now, finally, you’ll to enter the four-digit PIN you have previously created.
That’s a lot of time and effort to go through, however, each time you start a Secret Life session — three taps, a five-second wait, and a four-digit PIN.
If your iPhone has simply gone into screen-save mode — even into “Slide To Unlock” — you don’t need to go through this again. Yet you do need to re-authenticate after you’ve left Secret Life to go to the Home screen or to another app.
If you’ve left Secret Life as the foreground app, though, anybody who picks up your phone can get to all your “hidden” content without knowing your password.
Also, there’s no direct way to “unhide” content that’s in Secret Life — i.e., to add a Contact back to the main phone database.
While Secret Life does hide multiple types of content, I found it to be unnecessarily cumbersome. Let’s move on to another app.
Unfortunately, Picture Safe ($1.99) is just for photos. The $2.99 VideoSafe app, which you can upgrade PictureSafe to, also handles movies/videos.
Unlike Secret Life, Picture Safe doesn’t obfuscate itself with a false front app. Instead, Picture Safe presents itself as an icon named “PS.” You can use iOS Search to find it using either “Picture” or “Safe” or “PS” in the Search field.
You can take hidden pictures directly from within Picture Safe or import photos from the Camera Roll. Unlike Secret Life, Picture Safe doesn’t push you back a menu step each time you select a photo, instead letting you select multiple pictures — one by one, but in one selection session — from the Camera Roll.
PictureSafe lets you edit picture names, and organize photos into Albums. You can add/transfer pictures via USB to iTunes, or, in theory — I wasn’t able to get these features to work — by browser or FTP access. Sharing options include email and Bluetooth.
The RemoteSafe feature, if enabled, emails you if an incorrect PIN is entered three times — useful if you’ve forgotten your four-digit PIN, as well as to let you know if somebody else is trying to access your secured pix.
Picture Safe has two interesting optional features. SnoopStopper brings up pre-installed “decoy” pictures (tame vacation-looking scenery) either (a) after too many invalid PIN tries, or (b) when you tap in a special SnoopStopper PIN that you’ve set, which is different from your PIN.
Through another feature, QuickHide, a quick gesture will bring up a different “decoy” picture — either a built-in default, or one which you’ve chosen from your Camera. You can use any of three gestures — double-tap, two-finger double-tap, or shake — to access QuickHide.
Once either SnoopStopper or QuickHide is invoked, you will have to re-enter your PictureSafe PIN to regain access to your protected content — and that makes sense.
I like PictureSafe a lot more than Secret Life. It’s more flexible in dealing with images. It also offers better security features, and it’s quicker to use.
As mentioned, however, Picture Safe won’t handle other content, like Contacts, Notes, audio, or documents. So you’ll need a separate app for that.
Lock Photo+Video+Audio+Files+Docs/Journal/Notes, HD
99 cents, or $2.99 for Pro version
Compatible with iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch; requires iOS 4.0 or later
I kid you not. The full name of this app is, “LockPhoto+Video+Note+Audio+Files+Docs/Journal/Notes, HD/HQ Image/Images Manager, Video+Pic/Pics Folder/Folders, Picture/Pictures Albums & Private-Photo-Vault: A Secure Disk To Protect My Secret Photos+Videos & Photo-Privacy-Data Safe With Password Free.” And I thought I was bad about overly descriptive file or object names!
Lock Photo, then, is an ambitious, turf-wise, content protector. As its verbose full name implies, in addition to photos, it will hide videos, voice notes, text documents, PDFs, Microsoft Office files, and Apple Pages/Key/Numbers doc files. You can organize these into folders and subfolders; and view/play the content.
At the top level, Lock Photo groups things by type: Photo, Video, Audio, Document. The app lets you import photos from the iPhone camera or Photo roll library or a USB-connected computer. You can export photos to email or back to the iPhone library or to a USB-connected computer. I was able to take and to import photos, and import files from my Windows desktop (once I had used iTunes to enable file-sharing for Lock Photo, and to add the files).
I was also able to view pictures, Word and PDF files from Lock Photo. One feature that I wasn’t able to get to work? Connecting to my PC directly via WiFi, for browser/FTP transfer.
Lock Photo’s icon is a multi-colored umbrella named My Disk. Doing a Search using “Lock” will return “My Disk” as a hit. (It’s important to know this. Otherwise, you’ll keep wondering “What the heck is ‘My Disk’?”)
To gain access to Lock Photo, you start by selecting “Administrator” — the only available choice — from the “Category/User” screen. This takes you to an enter-PIN screen. (The implication of the screen title is that you can add users with other PINs, although I couldn’t find any way to actually do this.)
Similarly, Lock Photo’s web page refers to “organize users/categories and decoy users,” but I was unable to create either users or “decoy users.”
Lock Photo does much of what’s claimed. The support for PDFs and DOC files might make it useful to you, unless you can find some other doc-oriented app that includes password protection.
However, I found Lock Photo to be both too complex and too rigid. Top-sorting by type of document — photos, audio, video, etc. — is an artificial distinction. I’d rather be able to define topical folders — pick a topic, any topic — that might include a mix of photo, audio, video, etc.
Compatible with iPhone and iPad; requires iOS 4.0 or later
Like Picture Safe, PicVault is intended to hide pictures either imported from your existing ones, or that are taken on an iPhone inside the app.
The “display name” for PicVault on your iPhone is “PV,” and the icon looks like a calculator.
Importing photos from the camera roll is easy. PicVault lets you mark all of the photos you want. Then it does a batch import.
PicVault doesn’t automatically require you to reenter the password if you’ve switched to other apps during a session.
Special features of PicVault include pan-and-zoom image browsing, folder organization, and the ability to export pictures back to the picture library on your device for synchronization. (PicVault, however, urges users to back up — export — all PicVault photos before applying any PicVault updates, “in case there are any hiccups.”)
Yet PicVault has gotten a lot of negative reviews on iTunes, and I can see why. It took me several tries — including re-downloading from iTunes and manually syncing — to get PicVault installed to my iPhone.
PicVault’s ability to let you switch between features is poor. For example, if I selected the Camera (take a picture) feature, the Camera app wouldn’t take a picture until I did something else, like switch between the front and back cameras. Also, you can’t cancel. You need to take a picture and then Garbage-can it.
If you want to hide a bunch of photos, PicVault will do that. However, I don’t recommend PicVault at all.
Well, there you have it. All four of the apps I tested were able to hide and password-protect photos. Only two of them, though, were able to do the same for other types of content.
All of these apps, too, were limited in other ways — cumbersome overall functionality and/or certain features that just don’t seem to work. If you really want to conceal some of the data on your phone, though, maybe these limitations won’t bother you all that much. In any case, the list of “privacy apps” for iPhones seems to grow longer every day.