Dark patterns: A step-by-step guide to protect your privacy on your phone

By Isabel Brown, Consumer Watchdog Associate

Apps and social media are a part of everyday life. They help us stay connected to the world around us. But it can be easy to overlook the risk involved with making personal information accessible online, especially when that information can be recorded, bought and sold by the companies running the apps.

Dark patterns are one way apps and websites steer consumers into making the choice that’s right for the app or website but wrong for the consumer. Dark patterns make it harder for you to select higher privacy or security settings so they can collect more of your data and monetize your engagement. Also, while apps and websites make it as easy as possible -- often, one-click! -- to subscribe to paid services, dark patterns often make it much harder to cancel services. 

It’s important that consumers protect their own privacy. Federal passage of a strong privacy law has stalled due to industry demands that any new law allow unfettered collection and monetization of your data with no consumer enforcement rights against unfair practices.

After a promising start with passage of the California Consumer Privacy Act in 2018, subsequent new state laws in Virginia and Colorado and proposals in numerous other states from Washington State to Florida, have followed an industry-approved pattern of providing only opt-out rights some of the time, but no real consumer protections

Taking control of how public your information is – and how data companies like Google and Meta are able to use that information – is key to protecting your privacy.

You can take some control by changing your account settings. Finding exactly where those settings are can be difficult, so here are some recommendations and step-by-step instructions for how to set up your accounts and devices for four popular apps: Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.