Mobile computing has ushered in an era of personal data ownership, where the intimate nature of our devices, which many consumers have at their fingertips 24/7, can instill a level of complacency when it comes to matters of privacy — after all, it’s your device, not a shared computer, so what is on it should be free from prying eyes and beyond the grasp of parents and partners. But this isn’t really the case.

For example, you may be in a relationship, but have doubts about your partner’s fidelity, with questions such as who are they talking to? What is hidden in those private Facebook messages? Are they still using the casual dating app that the two of you met on? What about those other websites your partner visits?

Or you may be a concerned parent that is diligently attempting to monitor your child’s Internet use, social media postings, and the real-life social circle that he or she is a part of, in hopes of squelching risky behavior. And what about your partner or minor child’s use of pornography or their accessing of other adult oriented content — wouldn’t you like to know about it?

Beyond these basic suspicions and their power to motivate unwanted scrutiny of your digital devices, there are a range of legitimate reasons why users would want to hide or protect their applications, files and folders. These include securing sensitive banking, business and workplace documents, to simply fighting clutter on your phone’s home screen. Of course, you might be trying to hide your shenanigans such as pornography consumption, potentially embarrassing conversations and illicit extramarital trysts — because sometimes your spouse’s suspicions are dead-on.

Regardless of the reasons that you want to hide content on your digital device — or discover if there is hidden content on another person’s device, there are a few things to consider. The first is the most basic security measure: the use of a password or biometrics (such as a thumbprint used to unlock an iPhone).

While this can hinder casual gawkers whose curiosity gets the better of them, there are many situations where a user may be “forced” to unlock their device for inspection. At this point, if no other steps have been taken for securing the device, all of its owner’s secrets will be revealed.

Adding an extra layer of security (and tidiness), simply hiding an installed app from view is possible via the device’s settings panel, or by dragging app icons into deeply nested folders, and using custom names for those folders — but these masking techniques can be readily thwarted by someone with knowledge of the device and how it displays or hides apps and folders. Other techniques are more complicated, such as creating “hidden” folders and/or using file encryption, but there is also a wide range of apps that are designed to keep prying eyes from seeing what you’re up to — and are sneaky about how they do it.

Take for example the Smart Hide Calculator Android app, which in addition to being an innocuous (and fully functional) calculator, enables users to enter a passcode number followed by the equals (“=”) sign, which opens an interface that hides and reveals apps, documents, files, photos, and videos — and does so without using a home screen icon that looks like a content hider.

Another stealthy app is Hide it Pro, which disguises itself as a functional “Audio Manager,” with sliders that control the device’s various volume settings. Tap and hold the app’s title graphic, however, and a password prompt appears, enabling access to your hidden content. A raft of features is supported, such as multiple hidden folders and Google Drive integration, a gallery and slideshow function, a built-in video player, military standard 256-bit AES encryption, and more. It’s also available for iOS and both PC and Mac desktop computers.

Another popular option is AppLock, which is available in 24 languages, and can easily lock SMS, Contacts, Gmail, Facebook, Gallery, Market, Settings, Calls and any other app, as well as any photos and videos, with the selected images vanishing from your photo gallery. The AppLock icon can be hidden with the app activated by using the phone’s keypad to enter the passcode and then hitting the “dial” button.

Not every privacy app is as anonymous and secure as one would hope, however, with some such apps having listings and options under the device’s “Settings” menu, and others placing lock images over the items in your photo gallery you wish to protect, or using visible app names containing the words hide, locker, personal, private, vault, or anything similar — those are clear indications that you’re trying to hide something — and an approach that can hardly be considered stealthy.

Just as privacy oriented consumers learned to flush their web browser’s cache and history files; to hide their bookmarks; and to use “incognito mode” functions to keep others from seeing their online habits; the shift to an app based ecosystem is driving a renewed interest in protecting one’s personal privacy — because what we do online and who we communicate with is nobody’s business but our own. That’s the theory anyway — but since real world relationships are complicated, so too must be the steps we take to protect them, including hiding our apps and personal media.

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A media analyst and author exploring the confluence of policy, sexuality and technology, Stephen Yagielowicz brings together historical, personal and forward-looking perspectives for advocacy and educational storytelling. He serves as XBIZ’ Senior Editor.

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