Is there spyware on my phone? – 2019 Update

One of our most popular posts ever was one we published back in August 2017 on mobile spyware.

WESNET is pleased to announce we’ve completely updated and revised what we currently know about Mobile spyware. We have to give a big thanks to Dr Diarmaid Harkin, Dr Adam Molnar and Erica Vowles for the research work they did in digging into what’s really happening in the world of spyware.

The new handout is available here.

The TL:DR version is that we’re pretty confident now that if the abuser hasn’t had physical access to your smartphone then it’s pretty unlikely that spyware has been installed on your phone. There’s even better news if you own a iPhone 6 or later and have been keeping the software up to date then its EXTREMELY unlikely you have commercially available spyware on your iPhone.

What is Mobile Spyware

Mobile Spyware is software that can be installed on to a mobile phone that will allow someone else to remotely monitor activities on the phone. (Note: mobile spyware is slightly different from computer spyware. Read our Computer Spyware and Safety handout for more on computer spyware.)

Depending on the type of spyware installed, in most cases, the spyware will monitor:

  • Call history, including phone number, date, and length of call
  • Text messages, including phone number and SMS content
  • Contacts
  • Internet browsing, including history and bookmarks
  • Location of the phone
  • Photos taken on the phone
  • Email downloaded onto the phone

If the phone has been jailbroken (iPhone) or rooted (Android), spyware software can monitor more, including:

  • Certain messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, Viber, Skype
  • Phone conversations
  • Using the phone’s microphone to record the phone’s surrounding
  • Once the software is installed, the abusive person can monitor all the above activity via an online website.

If it’s not spyware, what else could it be?

There are several methods by which a person can track or monitor the activities of another person using technology other than Spyware. Monitoring information on Facebook, for example. Similarly, if a person can login to the iCloud or Google account associated with the phone, information from the phone can be accessed that may include location information. Many phones have functions such as “Find My Phone” that can be used to locate the owner of the phone. Within the context of this document, we do not consider these to be “spyware”. It is recognised, however, that these can be a problem from the perspective of tracking and stalking. For information on how to address those issues, please see information available in the WESNET Women’s Technology Safety and Privacy Toolkit.

Can I take my phone to the shop where it was purchased or to a local ‘tech expert’ to check for spyware?

There are certain forms of spyware that could be easily identified by an in-store, consumer retail outlet ‘tech expert’. But there are also forms of spyware that would require a more forensic examination that is not readily available to individuals who work in computer or smartphone stores.

Depending on your situation, if the stalking/surveillance through spyware is just one part of the abuse you are experiencing you may wish to seek support from a family violence service to put a safety plan in place, or you may want to contact 1800Respect for advice.

What can I do if I believe Spyware is being used against me now?

  • If you have strong reasons to believe that your phone is compromised by mobile spyware here are some steps you can take:
  • Consider using another phone or device for communication or other activities (such as searching for support services) that you would like to keep private. Continuing to use the phone in this way can be helpful if you do not want the abusive person to know that you suspect spyware is on the phone.
  • As a precaution, we recommend having conversations (on another device or in-person) that you would like to keep private, out of earshot of the device as some spyware may be able to record the surroundings of the phone.
  • Also keep in mind that spyware can monitor location, so you may want to be careful about where you go with the phone. If you take the phone to the police, the abuser may know that the phone is at the police station, for example, so think through of any safety issues that you might need.
  • Spyware will only communicate information whilst the phone is turned on and is connected to the internet. Therefore, turning off the phone will allow temporary relief from GPS tracking or any danger of the camera capturing pictures, audio, or video. (Note: Turning on ‘Airplane mode’ is also likely to temporarily prevent the spyware from tracking your phone. However, there are rare circumstances under which ‘Airplane mode’ can be faked and the phone may still be tracking your data despite being in ‘Airplane mode’).
  • If it is safe to do so, performing a factory reset on your device, ensuring the operating system is up to date and changing your Apple ID/iCloud or Google login passwords might rid the device of the spyware. This will work for many types of spyware but not all. (Hence why seeking further information from WESNET is advisable). A family violence support service will be able to assist you with considering if you would like to preserve evidence, how the abusive person might react if you remove their ability to monitor you, and help you develop a safety plan.
  • As a measure of last resort, purchasing a brand-new phone should remove the threat of spyware. (However, if purchasing a new Android device, avoid automatically reinstalling apps from your app library and see additional settings below). Your new device should be free of spyware, but it is strongly advisable to change your iCloud/Apple ID or Google login passwords.
    • (Note: On Android phones, check the security settings and disable “allow installation from unknown sources” and select “verify apps” to assist in preventing spyware from being installed).
Read the full handout
2019-05-01T11:41:04+11:00