There are many ways to spy on you, and your cell phone is perfect for it
According to the latest statistics, there are 5.16 billion mobile phones worldwide, and that number is growing at approximately 128 million new devices per year. It is not surprising, however, since mobile phones, especially smartphones changed the way we live our daily lives: we shop, access news, chat with friends, share our photos and stories on social media, and much more.
Essentially, these devices are very private, as they store credit card details, personal conversations, photos, and a lot of other sensitive information that is unique to every single one of us. This data can be easily tracked by software or malicious individuals who are keen to access it and use it for various purposes.
Long-distance transmission communication tracking is not a new phenomenon. Even during World War I, governments were spying on each other by intercepting telegraph communications, changing the course of history. The government is not the only entity that can perform espionage, however. Anyone can do it, including organized crime gangs, hackers, corporations, and other malicious actors.
While espionage can sometimes be justified (for example, if a malevolent group is being spied on by such institutions like NSA or the FBI to prevent an act of terror), the practice is generally considered to be intrusive, unwelcome, and also illegal. The ramifications of such activities could be disastrous, as private data disclosure could potentially lead to monetary losses, identity theft, and even suicide of an individual – Ashley Madison cheating site breach resulted in precisely such an outcome.
Since most of the surveillance is done stealthily, it is often difficult to tell whether somebody is spying on your phone. In this article, we will explore the controversial world of mobile phone spying, signs of such activities taking place, as well as ways to stop and prevent tracking in the future.
Companies collect information about you for profits
To understand the importance of your online privacy, you should first understand the scope of data tracking. Your cellphone is an intricate device that has a unique ID, and the operating system (iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry) installed on it. Since most of the phones are nowadays connected to the internet either by WiFi or the network access, most of the installed apps, websites, social media platforms, Google, and other parties are logging information about you.
By default, all the phones are generally set up to transmit anonymous and some personal data (for example, location tracking is often turned on via Google Maps) to various parties. While a lot depends on the settings configuration, most companies practice opt-out policy, and they collect the following information by default:
- Language settings
- Installed browser
- Installed apps
- Device model
- App settings
- Visited websites
- Search terms
- Ads clicked, and much more.
This data is aggregated, scrutinized, and is often used for marketing purposes, as well as for the purpose of providing a personalized experience to each of the users. The advertisement industry is worth more than $100 billion, and ads that would appeal to you more is something that tech companies are constantly monetizing on. Don't forget that, in the instance of such IT giants like Google, personal data, such as passwords, purchase activity, is also collected.
Why is mobile phone tracking bad and why should you care
While companies perform mobile phone tracking on a regular basis for ad revenue, the government does it for completely different reasons. Mass surveillance practices by the National Security Agency (NSA) have been known since at least 2013 when the whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the agency to the world. Additionally, Wikileaks uncovered secret documents of the Vault 7 CIA hacking tools, which were used to hack in users' mobile devices and perform spying around the world:
Recently, the CIA lost control of the majority of its hacking arsenal including malware, viruses, trojans, weaponized “zero day” exploits, malware remote control systems and associated documentation.
It is also known that the NSA forms Five Eyes alliance with governmental institutions around the world like Communications Security Establishment (Canada), Government Communications Security Bureau (New Zealand), Signals Directorate (Australia), and Government Communications Headquarters (UK). Together, these agencies compile a massive database of online and mobile communications, locations, and other personal information.
There has also been evidence the government approaches big tech companies and demands to provide information and their users. While corporations might not be willing to do some, they sometimes have a choice, as relevant parties are threatened with jail time if the scope of data exposure to the government is revealed to the public.
Hackers can also have malicious intents after gaining access to your smartphone. They can collect your passwords, banking data, and other sensitive information that could result in identity theft. Once the device is compromised, threat actors can use a backdoor to proliferate other malicious software, use it as a spam bot, and perform other malicious tasks.
You would not leave your credit card inside your mailbox, and you would not leave your house door open when leaving it. So why would you allow the government, agencies, companies, and hackers to spy on you? You should do everything in your might to stop mobile phone spying and tracking. How to tell if somebody spying on your phone? Read on.
Spyware is there to track your every move
Information tracking on your mobile phone can be performed in various ways. Involuntary data tracking includes spyware distributed by hackers and various methods used by the government and various agencies.
For any party to perform tracking activities, there must be Spy software installed on it, otherwise known as spyware, which is a type of malware. In most cases, users get infected with malware when downloading applications from insecure third-party websites. These Trojans usually pose as something useful, such as an alternative camera, flashlight, fitness, or any other type of app.
While most of the evil apps from shady websites, you shouldn't think that official sources are completely secure, either. There have been many instances where Google had to pull apps from its online store after security experts found it being Trojanized.
Besides, many surveillance apps were also before removed from the store that was used to spy on employees, romantic partners, and kids. This type of compromise is common for Android and iOS devices, despite the latter is believed to be more secure than the former. Rooted (Android) or Jailbroken (iOS) mobile devices are more prone to compromise, as a malicious app that gets installed on the system immediately gains admin-level rights.
Ultimately, there is no mobile phone that is completely safe, and there is always a possibility that somebody, somewhere knows your banking details, reads your text messages, and views your pictures.
How to tell if your phone is being tracked
There are many vulnerable parties that could be targeted by mobile phone spying. For example, you might be a member of a particular group (such as a journalist or a judge), or maybe your spouse tries to find out whether you are cheating or not. Unfortunately, even a strong password is not enough to protect your device from spying and tracking.
The most bizarre issue with the practice is that most of the spyware is designed to be invisible while the background activities are being performed, and those that do show signs can often get mixed with issues like having an old battery. Thus, how to find out if somebody is spying on your phone?
Short battery life
Batteries are nowadays relatively powerful and, even with extensive usage, should be able to keep the phone going for at least a day. This is extremely true with recently purchased phones, as battery performance does decrease over time, although this change should happen gradually.
If you just recently purchased your phone or noticed that your battery is being drained within a matter of a few hours despite you not using your phone much, you should be alerted, as there is a high chance that your phone is equipped with a Spy app.
Spyware applications are designed to perform a variety of background activities, and possibly install other malicious apps in the background while sending the important data over the WiFi or the mobile network. Naturally, such initially invisible actions take a large portion of the battery, hence reducing its operation time.
Thus, if you noticed strange batter deterioration, you should investigate your phone further and make sure that it is not infected with spyware.
High mobile data usage
Your mobile network provider typically offers you various plans when it comes to data usage, and, unlike home internet plans, you are highly likely to have a limited amount of monthly data that you can use without connecting to a WiFi. In many cases, phones are also set to warn users about the almost reached limit.
If you recently noticed that your mobile data is running out much quicker than usual, it is highly likely that malicious application is transferring information over the network to a particular source. Nonetheless, increased mobile data consumption might also be related to many different factors, so it is not easy to always connect such activity to spyware.
Unknown apps installed on your phone
As already mentioned, spyware apps typically get installed from third-party websites. In case you stick to official sources such as Google Play or App Store, you should generally feel relatively secure. If you are downloading apps from unknown sites, you should definitely be alarmed.
When you access potentially malicious websites or download apps from third-party sources, you might end up installing spyware without realizing it yourself. If you found some unknown apps running on your phone (especially if they have administrator's rights), there is a high chance that your phone is infected.
Keep in mind that malicious applications are usually disguised and sophisticated. Even if you might believe that you simply installed a useful application that provides you with particular functionality, but it might also be running malicious scripts in the background, stealing your passwords, logins, banking, and other sensitive data.
Strange cellphone reboots
Have you need experiencing random phone reboots without you initiating them? This type of activity might be one of the signs that somebody is spying on your phone. In some cases, a system restart that was not performed by yourself might be a sign that somebody is controlling your phone remotely.
Once malware is installed on the device, it implements a variety of changes, imports multiple malicious files, and alters the way the system works in the first place. For these changes to be initialized, a system reboot must be performed, similarly when a Windows machine needs to be rebooted after the installation of the newest updates.
However, don't forget, there are other reasons why your phone is randomly rebooting. For example, the culprit of such activity might be a defective OS, overheating, stuck button, poorly programmed apps, and much more.
While many phone messages might be connected to the simple process of purchasing something on the Play Store, weird text messages that you receive might also be a sign that cell phone tracking apps are installed on your device.
If you receive suspicious text messages that include random alphanumeric characters that make no sense, it is highly likely that a malicious application is trying to communicate with its remote server. While in most cases such communications are performed without showing any signs to the phone owner, such coded texts are used when the spyware was badly programmed and cannot execute its functions as intended.
Suspicious Standby mode activity
It is evident that you do not constantly stare at your phone, and it notifies you about new messages, emails, update prompts, and other important events that demand your attention for a particular reason.
Besides notifications that are configured to be shown on your device, your phone screen should not randomly turn on, play sounds, or engage in other suspicious activity when in a Standby mode.
Another important note is that the standby/idle mode should not be draining your battery, as most of the phone's functions are turned off. In case you notice increased battery activity in Standby, there is a chance that the spyware app is installed on your device.
Early signs of aging
While hardware decline over time is a normal phenomenon, abrupt performance deterioration can indicate that other issues are causing them. Newest phones are equipped with very powerful hardware, as the chips and other components become more heat resident, durable, and less prone to various problems that make the phone obsolete.
If you noticed that your phone started abruptly showing signs of aging despite being in a relatively good condition previously, there is a change that spyware is causing it.
Strange sounds during phone conversations
Low-grade spyware applications can display various symptoms, and the especially meticulous users would spot such signs almost instantly. One such example is when spyware application is coded poorly is when victims can spot the phone conversation interception.
During your phone calls, if you hear suspicious cracking sounds or random voices of unknown people, there is a chance that low-grade spyware app is installed on your phone and is spying on you all the time.
Stop and prevent your phone from being spied on
All the symptoms oh the phone hijack listed above might be related to some other problems that could be unrelated to mobile phone tracking. However, if you experience two or more symptoms at the same time, you should make every effort to ensure that no spy apps are running on your phone – there are several steps you could undertake in order to stop phone tracking activities on your device.
- Scan your cellphone with reputable anti-malware software. Powerful anti-malware is capable of detecting spy apps, flagging them, and removing them if you desire to do so. However, make sure that you employ trusted security applications as there are many fakes specifically designed for Android and iOS.
- Uninstall all suspicious apps from your phone. You should always know what is running on your phone and for that, you should always check the installed apps section. For that, go to Settings > Apps, expand the full list, and then get rid of everything you don't recognize.
- Enable built-in defenses. Once on your phone, ensure that privacy-related settings are tweaked to protect you adequately.
- Enable Google Plat Protect. Google Play Protect is one of the most effective tools that scan all the installed apps and prevent malicious ones from entering the device.
- Ensure that your operating system is up-to-date. Apply updates as soon as your OS developer ships them, as it prevents hackers from exploiting software vulnerabilities on your device.
If the checks did not help and you still believe that your phone might be tracked, you should perform a factory reset. Since phones are connected to your accounts such as Google, you can regain the features and apps quickly after the process. Essentially, a factory reset will wipe everything off of your device, including malicious software designed to spy on you.
Reset Android to stop tracking on your phone
- Open Settings
- Go to System and tap Advanced
- Pick Reset options
- Tap on Factory reset/Erase all data
Reset iOS to stop spying apps
- On you iPhone, go to Settings
- Select General and then pick Reset
- Tap on Erase All Content and Settings
Cleaning your phone from spyware is not enough – equip it with a robust VPN
VPN is a great solution when it comes to online privacy. The Virtual Private Network ensures that inbound and outbound connections on the device are performed anonymously. When using a VPN, you can choose between various servers that you could connect to – it makes all your traffic anonymous as soon as you connect to it.
This is a particularly great way of protecting your phone from intruders that could get into your device once you connect to an insecure WiFi. Besides, this tool can ensure that you stay invisible from various online trackers and spying that could come from your ISP or the government.
However, picking a random VPN service will not suffice. In many cases, the developers of free VPNs gather user information in the background and the sell it to third-parties for profits. Since you agree to terms before installing such software, you are not likely to know about these activities. Security experts and advocates highly advise not to use a free VPN service due to a variety of reasons.
Thus, you should employ a VPN service that does not track you – Private Internet Access does not only fulfill these criteria, but also provides over 3,300 servers across 31 countries. This service will provide you access to geo-restricted content (Netflix, Disney+, etc.), allow torrenting, and will not slow you down.