How To Stop Your Smartphone From Secretly Wasting Data In The Background

Most of us have to watch our data usage in order to avoid excess charges on our bill. That can become difficult when our smartphones eat up our precious megabytes in the background, and it’s an issue for both Android and iPhone. Here’s how to stop it.

Recently, a friend asked me for help after he reached 90 per cent of his data usage despite (he thought) barely using any data. Apps can still use data when they’re not open, and many do regardless of whether you’re on a 3G or Wi-Fi connection. Some apps are obvious culprits; watching video or running a torrent client will inevitably use data.

In this post we’re going to look at how to figure out which apps are eating your data unnecessarily and how to stop them. On Android it’s pretty simple, but for iPhone you need to do a little detective work.


Tracking which apps use your data is straightforward on Android. Simply install the free My Data Manager app and allow it to track the data your apps use. At any time, you can open up Data Manager and take a look at how many megabytes a given app is using. If a particular app is consuming lots of data, make sure that app isn’t running in the background (or just delete it from your phone altogether). Solving the problem is easy so long as you know which app is using up all of your data.


On an iPhone, you can’t track exactly which apps are using your data unless you’re jailbroken. If you are, you can grab iNetUsage ($US2) from Cydia and monitor the breakdown. If not, you need to conduct an investigation and find the culprit(s) via trial and error. Let’s go over a few methods.

Ensure Wi-Fi Is Actually Enabled

Sometimes high data usage happens because you turned off Wi-Fi without realising. When my home internet connection goes down, I often make this mistake. Fortunately I don’t use that much data imost of the time, but if I did it could turn into a major problem. Before you start investigating, make sure this isn’t an issue.

Find Apps That Use The Most Power

If an iPhone app is draining your battery, it may also be consuming data unexpectedly. Battery-sucking apps run in the background, and downloading data is one of the few tasks that can be performed in the background (alongside using the GPS and playing music). While iOS has controls designed to restrict the levels of downloading in the background, these aren’t foolproof.

A common cause of wasted data is leaving a streaming music player or location-aware app open in the background. Streaming music requires a continuous flow of data, while location-aware apps will often download maps and other details relevant to your current location. Music apps can play indefinitely, and if they’re streaming that music, you can use a lot of data simply by forgetting to stop playback. Unless you have a generous data allocation, only use these apps when connected to Wi-Fi.

Location-aware apps use your GPS and may need to download data relevant to that GPS. Fortunately, it’s easy to check which apps are using location information.

Go into Settings on your iPhone. If you’re running iOS 6, tap Privacy then Location Services; for earlier versions, Location Services is on the main Settings screen.

Most apps will just have an ON and OFF switch, but some will show a solid purple arrow, an outline purple arrow, or a solid grey arrow next to them. A solid purple arrow means the app has used your location recently; a grey arrow indicates the app has used your location in the last 24 hours; and a purple outline arrow means the app is using a geofence (meaning that it’s waiting to perform a task when you reach a specific location). The purple arrows are the ones to watch for; try quitting those apps and see if your data usage decreases.

Check Your Bill

Most carriers keep detailed records of your data usage, though that information won’t necessarily be displayed on your bill. You may be able to find out more detailed information by calling your provider directly. (In the event of a dispute over data charges, it’s always worth asking your provider for detailed information. If they can’t show when the data was used, the bill may be waived.)

Use A Data-Monitoring App

You can also use a data-monitoring app to keep an eye on your overall usage. This won’t tell you which app is causing trouble, but it will tell you when a lot of data was used. That data and time information may help you identify the culprit.

Future Improvements

Under the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code, carriers ust provide notifications when you have used 50 per cent, 80 per cent and 100 per cent of your overall credit. This will make it less likely that you’ll get hit with totally unexpected excess data charges. Unfortunately, that requirement won’t be in place until September 2013 for large providers, and September 2014 for smaller companies. Even when it kicks in, the onus will be on you to identify how that data is being used.

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