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January 7, 2020

Privacy Tip of the Week: Beware of Mobile Spying

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If you have a smartphone, tablet, or other mobile device , you have access to the collective sum of human knowledge. However, you have to beware of other people online who want access to the collective sum of knowledge about you. This knowledge comes in the form of your private data, gathered by spying on your mobile activity. Thankfully, spyware is not worryingly prevalent for mobile devices (yet). However, it’s always good to be aware of the risks and signs that your device may be compromised. Please be advised, paranoia can induce you to see signs of spyware even if your phone is simply acting up, as technology tends to do. In many cases, spyware is also too advanced to even be detectable. If you have genuine concerns, here are some ways to tell if mobile spying is taking place on your devices:

  • Who is spying on you?
  • Too high data usage
  • Activity in standby mode
  • Unplanned reboots
  • Unusual sounds during calls
  • Bizarre text messages
  • Battery problems
  • Shut down taking too long
  • Phone responding unnaturally slowly
  • How to remove spyware

Who is Spying on You?

There’s a wide range of people who may want to spy on you. Hackers are the obvious ones, because they typically stand to benefit most. They can sell stolen data to the highest bidder or use it as blackmail. Their method of mobile spying usually comes through a form of malware or spyware. These “wares” can invade your device if you click on the wrong link or download the wrong app.

The next group of people who may want to spy on your device activity is actually people you know. One example is a suspicious significant other. On the Netflix show You, the main character digitally stalks his love interest by spying on her smartphone activity. In this case, the other party may physically install an app on your device to track your behaviour. Finally, companies can also spy on and track your activity.

If you use a company-issued mobile device for work, the company you work for may also have the right to install mobile-spying software. This allows them to monitor how you use their property. If you suspect your employer is tracking your activity but does not have the right to do so legally, check the laws in your area.

Finally, the creators of certain apps may also be “spying” on you, but for legitimate purposes. For example, GPS apps are probably tracking your movements and locations. However, they must do so in order to provide you with their service. Other apps collect your data for marketing and research purposes which you may consider to be an invasion of privacy. The best solution to this issue is opting out of data collection, or switching to an app with better privacy policies.

Warning Sign: Data Usage is Too High

No one likes data overages, but in general they can be explained away. Perhaps your phone didn’t automatically switch to wifi and you watched a few YouTube videos with your data by mistake. Maybe you went on vacation and used your data to navigate around an unfamiliar city. But if your data usage is abnormally high and your normal data-using activities haven’t changed at all, that might be a warning sign that spyware has been installed on your device. Low-end mobile spying software may use significant amounts of data in order. They need it to transmit the information they are collecting to the person receiving that information.

Warning Sign: Your Phone Activates in Standby Mode

If you have your screen turned off but your phone keeps lighting up for no reason (in other words, there are no notifications, calls, or alarms that may trigger an alert), that may also be a sign that some unsavoury activity is happening in the background that you don’t know about. However, take this “sign” of mobile spying with a grain of salt. Some phones have settings that trigger the screen to turn on if it detects motion or touch. In addition, this can signal a breakdown in your device (for example, the “knock on” feature of the LG G4 stopped working for many users and resulted in the screen turning itself on randomly).

Warning Sign: Unplanned Reboots

Has your phone ever rebooted unexpectedly and without warning? If so, that may alert you that spyware has installed on your device and given a third party access to device functions, like rebooting. However, just as with the screen turning on in standby mode, this sign of spyware may also just be an indicator that something in your phone has gone wrong and it needs a reboot to correct the problem. In addition, this behaviour should be happening regularly before it is cause for alarm.

Warning Sign: Unusual Sounds During Calls

Unless you’re in a place where shaky and unstable cell service is an expectation, such as in a remote location or in a tunnel, call clarity should be largely without strange noises on the line. However, if you take a call and you hear clicking sounds or voices in the distance and you know those sounds aren’t coming from the person you are calling, that may be a warning sign that someone is spying on your mobile activity. Again, this behaviour should happen consistently in order for you to seriously regard it as a sign of mobile spying.

Warning Sign: Bizarre Text Messages

In 2017, receiving a text message that simply said the word “covfefe” may have been bizarre, but it was in response to the now-infamous tweet sent by Donald Trump. In the case of spyware, “bizarre” texts refer instead to messages filled with strange symbols, numeric characters, and made-up languages. This may be an indicator that low-end spyware on your device is sending or receiving code and commands (and also isn’t working properly).

Warning Sign: Battery Problems

Unfortunately, battery technology isn’t advancing as quickly as other forms of tech, so it isn’t unusual for the quality of a battery in a mobile device to degrade over time. However, if your device battery is suddenly draining way faster than it should, or constantly overheating, that can be a sign that spyware is using resources on your device faster than it can handle. In order to test whether the issue is your battery or spyware, trying swapping the battery out for a fresh one if possible. If the problem persists, you can more reasonably suspect mobile spying (although there is still a chance that it’s simply a hardware issue).

Warning Sign: Shut Down Taking Too Long

Normally, when you shut down your phone, it should only take a couple of seconds to close your apps and end your activities before shut down can occur. If your device is taking minutes in order to shut down, that may indicate another software in the background that’s resisting being shut off.

Warning Sign: Phone Responding Unnaturally Slow

A decade ago, a slow phone, or a phone that slowed over time, was reasonably normal to experience. Processing capabilities weren’t what they are today. However, if you have a recent device model that seems to be moving far slower than it should, that may indicate spyware in the background that’s diverting processing power from the normal functionality of your phone. However, as with all warning signs of spyware, this indicator may simply be a problem with the device itself instead of malicious software designed to track and transmit your activity.

What Can You Do About Mobile Spying?

So you have reason to believe that your phone has spyware installed on it. How do you go about removing or stopping the software from affecting your privacy? There are a few ways.

  • Uninstall It: If you discover the source of spyware on your device, your first step should be to uninstall it. It may appear as an app, or as a device file.
  • Update Your Operating System: If you’ve fallen victim to a spyware scam that is affecting many other people, it’s entirely possible that the makers of your device’s operating system will release a system update to remove or nullify the spyware.
  • Reset to Factory Settings: If you’re sure you have spyware on your device but just can’t seem to find it, you can take the more drastic step of resetting your device to its factory settings. It will delete any unwanted software from your device…but will also delete everything else, so only consider this option if you’re okay with starting over with what is essentially an entirely new phone.
  • Set or Change Your Device Password: In the event that spyware was installed manually on your device (by a suspicious significant other, creepy coworker, etc.) then setting or resetting a device password once the spyware is removed is a must. This will prevent unwanted access from the people in your life.

Although the risk of spyware is slim, knowing the risks and warning signs can help you reduce it even more.

To protect yourself further, browse the web privately and safely with HotBot VPN.

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