Understanding User Data on a Smartphone

By Jeff Yee, VP, Innovation & Partnerships, ZTE USA

Smartphones are “smart” because applications access user data to provide a benefit or value. Map applications use location data to navigate, social media apps use pictures to tell a story, and gaming apps may access a user profile when connecting with other players online.

Understanding where user data lives on a smartphone starts with breaking down three major device components: the processor; the operating system; and apps. 


The processor is a hardware “chipset” that executes commands such as powering the phone on or connecting to the wireless carrier network. It also follows instructions from the software or apps such as connecting to Wi-Fi or saving a photo to the device versus the cloud. Most consumer mobile devices in the U.S. use chipsets from the American-based company, Qualcomm or the Taiwanese-based company, MediaTek. 

Operating System

The operating system is the software layer that communicates with hardware and can protect what user data can or cannot be accessed. The most widely used operating systems today include Android, which is made by Google, and iOS, which is made by Apple. All ZTE smartphones use Android.

Smartphone makers modify Android software to provide access to the several hardware components that are unique to that device, such as camera filters, features that unlock the display, or side swipe functionality for example. They can also modify the visual experience such the shape of icons, colors, etc.

The less the software is modified, the “cleaner,” more efficient the experience tends to be for the user. Less battery power is typically consumed, and security updates can be implemented more quickly.


Some apps are pre-installed by recommendation of Google (i.e. Google Maps) or the wireless carrier (i.e. My T-Mobile). There are notably fewer pre-installed apps and software modifications in ZTE phones when compared to competitors, which is sometimes referred to as “stock Android.”

Users can download apps based on what the Operating System maker provides (i.e. Google Play or App Store). Downloadable apps are provided by independent third-party companies (i.e. Facebook).

It is important to understand how third parties will use data and if they share it with others.  Before granting an app access to your data, read the company’s privacy policy, normally found on their web site.

Security Updates

It is important to maintain security found at all levels: processor, operating system, and apps. 

When potential issues are found in the processor or operating system, ZTE works with its suppliers (e.g. Qualcomm, Google, etc.) to fix the issue with an over-the-air (OTA) update.  In the U.S., these updates are coordinated through wireless carriers. 

For apps, most updates are provided by the third party and managed through the app store (i.e. Google Play). It is important to keep apps and software updated for security purposes.