A woman in the UK made headlines recently when she confessed that her husband monitors her phone - reading her messages and tracking her every move - using a stealthy tracking app that he installed. She may claim it’s not bothering her, but tracking apps and spyware are a genuine risk, and an extremely unpleasant invasion of privacy for many. Here are our tips on how to recognize if you have a tracking app on your phone, and what to do about it.
Opportunity is key
Installing tracking apps and spyware requires physical access to your phone; so the easiest way to prevent it is to keep your phone secure. Since you can’t quite take your phone everywhere with you - we’ve all got to shower some time - make sure to set a PIN on the phone, and make it a hard one to guess. Not your birthday, wedding anniversary, address or familiar combinations.
Has your iPhone been “jailbroken”?
Installing tracking or spyware apps on iPhone requires a process called “jailbreaking” - bypassing Apple’s strict built-in rules on installing software from sources other than the Appstore. If it’s happened to your phone, you wouldn’t outwardly notice the difference, but if whoever did it was hasty or careless, they might not have deleted the software they used to do it. Look for apps like Cydia, Icy, Installer, Installous, SBSettings - some of the most common jailbreaking tools. Simply swipe right on your home screen to search your phone, as they won’t necessarily show up with an app icon.
Check your bills
If there’s a tracking app or spyware on your phone, it could send your data charges through the roof, as it’s fairly common for such apps to use GPS to monitor your phone’s location and use data roaming to report back to whoever’s controlling them. If you haven’t been abroad and notice a sudden, prolonged increase in your data charges, check it out immediately.
Signs you may have tracking apps or spyware installed
There are a number of tell-tale signs that your phone might be tracking you without your knowledge and reporting on your every communication. Does the battery run down a lot quicker than it should, and stay warm even when idle? Does it stay lit when you try to turn the screen off, or light up when you’re not doing anything? Is it slower running apps than normal? Are there unfamiliar applications running in the background? Does it take forever to shut down? On their own, these may not indicate tracking apps, but together with some of the below, they may mean your phone is hiding something.
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Don’t ignore odd messages
If you receive a text message full of what looks like computer code, or garbled numbers, it is possible it’s an ‘instruction’ message sent by the remote controller of the tracking software on your phone; the spyware works by receiving such messages and although they are meant to go unnoticed, may sometimes appear in your inbox.
Hunt down the tracking app
Not all users will be comfortable poking around in their phone’s folders and directories, but if you use a file explorer app like ES File Explorer, look in your message folders, image folders and application folders. Often the spyware isn’t very subtle - it can create files with words like ‘stealth’, ‘spy’ and ‘mobilespy’ in them. Delete anything that’s this obvious, but seek expert advice before wiping out files you’re not sure about.
Real world evidence
Last but not least, one of the best tips to tell if you have tracking or spying apps installed on your software is paying attention to what’s going on around you. Has anyone close to you said or done anything suspicious? It could be as simple as forgetting to sound surprised when you tell them something, or letting slip something they otherwise wouldn't know.
How to block spying apps
A good antivirus app for mobile should guard against spying and tracking apps. ESET offers a mobile security package for Android - by far the more susceptible platform to malware and rogue apps.
How to remove tracking apps and spyware
If you keep your phone’s software up to date, use anti-malware software and delete anything suspicious as described above, you will probably be safe. But the only way to be sure is to do a full backup to your computer, reset your phone to factory settings and then reinstall everything one by one, paying special attention to only reinstall apps you know and trust.
If you’re using an iPhone that you suspect has been jailbroken without your knowledge, upgrading to the latest version of iOS will reverse the jailbreaking procedure and remove the rogue software, but as before, make sure you’re backed up first.