Is Someone Spying On Your Phone?

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Callum oversees how we test and review VPN services. He's a member of the IAPP, and his advice about VPNs has featured in Forbes and the Internet Society. Read full bio

Worried that someone is spying on your phone activity, reading your messages, and watching what you do online? This guide will explain how to spot spyware on your phone, how to properly remove it, and how to protect yourself against spying in the future.

criminal spying on someone through a window shaped like a phone

Our cell phones provide a snapshot of our entire lives through the storage of photos, messages, and phone calls. Unfortunately, this can make them a target for people who want to spy on you.

Regardless of whether you use an Android or an iPhone, it is possible for someone to install spyware onto your phone that will secretly report on your activity. It’s even possible for them to monitor your cell phone’s activity without ever even touching it.

Mobile spyware, sometimes called stalkerware, can be installed onto your phone to monitor information such as calls, text messages, emails, location, photos, and browsing history. In some cases it may be able to take photos and record nearby conversations.

Spyware is designed to remain hidden, so that it can monitor your phone without you knowing. However, a lot of spyware is detectable if you know what you’re looking for.

In this guide, we’ll introduce 10 signs that your phone might be being spied on.

We’ll then explain what to do if you suspect there is spyware on your phone and walk you through how to remove it.

Lastly, we’ll explore some of the ways you can protect yourself from someone spying on your phone in the future.

How To Tell If Someone Is Spying On Your Phone

Detecting spyware on your phone is difficult because it will usually be hidden or operating in stealth mode.

That said, there are still a number of things you can look out for. Here are 10 of the most common signs that someone is spying on your phone:

1. Unfamiliar Applications

Although the most sophisticated spyware will be hidden, people occasionally misuse apps like parental control apps in order to spy on others. If someone is spying on your phone using one of these apps, then the spyware will be hiding in plain sight.

Search your phone for any unfamiliar applications that you don’t remember downloading. Common ones to look out for include Net Nanny, Kaspersky Safe Kids, Norton Family, and Qustodio. Skip to our section below on How To Remove Spyware for more.

2. Your Device is ‘Rooted’ or ‘Jailbroken’

‘Rooting’ an Android device or ‘jailbreaking’ an iOS device allows users to bypass the official app stores and install unapproved apps. If your device has been rooted or jailbroken and you didn’t do it, that’s a strong indication that something suspicious is going on.

To check whether an Android device has been rooted, download an app called Root Checker.

To check whether an iOS device has been jailbroken, look for an app called ‘Cydia’. Cydia is the app used to install software onto jailbroken phones. If you find it on your device, then it’s almost certain your phone has been jailbroken.

EXPERT TIP: When you buy a second-hand phone, it’s worth restoring it to factory settings just to make sure it isn’t jailbroken or rooted. Find out how to do this here: Android or iPhone.

3. The Battery Is Draining Fast

If spyware is working continuously, it can drain your battery faster than usual. All batteries degrade over time though, so you’ll need to look for a significant and sudden change, rather than a gradual deterioration.

If you do notice a sudden change, check whether any recently installed or updated apps are responsible before concluding you have a problem. We’re often surprised at how power-hungry some social media apps can be.

4. Your Phone Is Getting Very Hot

If your device is running hot, it may be a sign that someone is spying on you by running spyware in the background.

This is especially relevant if your phone is heating up even when you’re not using it, or when you’re barely using it.

NOTE: Similarly, if there is a sudden drop in your phone’s processing speed, it could be the result of spying. As more of its resources are directed toward the spyware app, your phone may start to run noticeably slower.

5. Unusually High Data Usage

An unusual surge in the amount of data your phone is consuming can sometimes be a sign that spyware is running in the background. The spy app needs to use data to send information back to the perpetrator, so a spike in data usage may indicate foul play.

To check your mobile data on iPhone, go to Settings then Mobile Data. You can see your overall data use or scroll down to see how much mobile data individual apps are consuming.

To check your mobile data usage on Android, go to Settings > Network & Internet > Data Usage. Under Mobile, you’ll see the total amount of cellular data being used by your phone. Tap Mobile Data Usage to see how your data use has changed over time. From here, you can identify any recent spikes.

NOTE: These measures only track the use of cellular data (i.e. the data you use when not connected to WiFi). If your phone is constantly connected to a WiFi network, then this won’t be much help in identifying spyware. That said, some Android phones do offer the option to “Show Wi-Fi Data Usage” too, so use this to monitor how much data your phone is using while connected to WiFi.

Again, high data usage is not always the result of spyware. You’ll need to rule out legitimate apps first by checking the data consumption and behavior of individual apps. For instance, we were alarmed to see our data use spiking, until we discovered our new podcast app was downloading lots of previous episodes.

6. Strange Activity In Standby Mode

Your phone can still receive messages and calls when it’s on standby (or in sleep mode), but it shouldn’t be lighting up or making noises for any other reason. If it is, then it may be a symptom of spyware.

Similarly, your phone’s screen should be off and not just darkened when in standby mode.

7. Issues With Shutting Down the Phone

Spyware apps might sometimes interfere with a phone’s shutdown process so that the device fails to turn off properly or takes an unusually long time to do so.

In 2014, Edward Snowden revealed an NSA technology that prevents phones from switching off fully in order to then use them for eavesdropping purposes. This is the result of a very sophisticated and highly-targeted attack, but it demonstrates that this form of spying is possible.

NOTE: Frequent and seemingly random reboots can also be an indicator that there is spyware on your phone.

8. Odd SMS Messages

Text messages can be used by spyware and malware to send and receive data. If you see outgoing messages that you didn’t send, it’s likely an indication that something’s not right.

Look out for unusual incoming messages, too. Primitive spyware apps will sometimes use SMS messaging to communicate with their base. The message will typically be coded in some way if it is associated with a spyware app.

There’s also services like Cerberus which send hidden commands within SMS messages that can make your phone take a picture and email it to the perpetrator, wipe your SD card, take a screenshot, and many other invasive things.

9. Autocorrect Is Misbehaving

Keyloggers are a form of spyware that keep a record of all your keypresses. Someone spying on your phone could use a keylogger to capture your messages and login details.

One possible sign that someone may be using a keylogger to spy on your phone is a misbehaving autocorrect system. The keylogger interferes with how the autocorrect function works, so if you notice it acting strangely or working significantly slower than usual, it may indicate that someone is spying on your phone.

10. Screenshot Quality

If you notice that the quality of screenshots is worse than expected, that could be the result of spyware, according to Malwarebytes.

CAUTION: These symptoms are not exclusive to spyware. They can also be caused by other forms of malware. Adware, for example, can slow down your phone and use up data. Similarly, there are websites that secretly mine your ‘spare’ CPU resources which can consume more than 5% of your battery power in ten minutes. In these cases, your device is being exploited but you’re not necessarily being spied on.

How To Confirm There Is Spyware On Your Phone

If you suspect your phone is being spied on, there are a couple of things you can do to try and confirm it.

  1. Certo makes applications that check if your device has spyware apps on it:
    • Certo AntiSpy for iOS devices runs on your PC or Mac and investigates your device’s backup, rather than the phone itself. It checks for tracking services, hidden apps, and anything with access to your location, microphone, or camera.
    • Certo Mobile Security for Android devices runs on your phone and scans for spyware, among other threats. It can also take a photo whenever someone moves your phone or enters the password incorrectly multiple times. That can help you to identify who is tampering with your device.
  2. Set up a trap to see if your information is being accessed without your permission:
    1. Pick any public web link you can share, such as an article from an online news site. You can even just pick ‘www.google.com’, but it’ll look more natural if there’s real content there.
    2. Use a link shortening service, such as bit.ly, which has a free option. You enter your link and it gives you a shorter version. The important thing is that bit.ly will count every time the shortened version is clicked. Don’t test the shortened link yourself.
    3. Send the shortened version to a friend in a message. Make sure your friend has been forewarned not to click the link. Warn them in person, not on or near your phone. Add a suitably enticing message, or perhaps just send it without a message.
    4. Check your stats in bit.ly. It should show that nobody’s clicked the link. You’ll know your phone is being monitored if there is a link count, as that indicates that someone has seen your message and clicked the link.

Only try this if it is safe to do so. If there is any risk to your physical safety whatsoever, seek help from the authorities or a charitable organisation, such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

How To Remove Spyware From Your Cell Phone

illustration of woman scrubbing spyware off her phone

There are a number of different ways to remove spyware from Android and iOS phones. These include using security software, removing the problem app manually, and updating the operating system.

Use the links below to find out exactly how you can remove spyware on your chosen device:

  • Android (including Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, and Motorola devices)
  • iPhone

Whatever phone you have, the most effective option is to do a factory reset. This will delete everything on the device and restore it to its factory settings, so it is the same as it was when it left the factory. You’ll lose all your data and apps on the device, but the spyware will be effectively removed.

A factory reset is the surest way to remove spyware from your cell phone, but many people prefer a less destructive approach.

If you do a factory reset, make a backup of your data (including photos) first. Don’t reinstall the same apps or software after the reset because you might reinstall the spyware too. If you have an older backup that predates the spyware, you might be able to restore your phone from that.

CAUTION: The perpetrator will probably become aware that you’ve removed the spyware because their information flow will dry up. In some situations, it may be safer for you not to remove the spyware. Instead, you could use a secret, second phone for any sensitive communications.

How to Remove Spyware Apps on Android

Illustration of Android phone and tablet

1Use a spyware removal tool

The simplest way to remove spyware from your Android phone is to use software designed for the job. It will scan your device for spyware (and other types of malware) and remove it.

Be sure to only use software from a reputable security brand. Unknown security apps may themselves carry malware.

Here are some safe options:

2Remove the app manually

You may be able to find the spyware app in the Application Manager and delete it manually. To do this:

  1. Start the phone in Safe Mode: Hold down the power button, then long-press Power Off. Tap OK to Reboot to Safe Mode.
  2. Enter the Application Manager: Go into Settings > Additional Settings > Application Management.
  3. Search for potential spyware apps: Try searching for “spy,” “trojan,” “stealth,” and similar words. Surprisingly, this can sometimes reveal suspect apps on the device.
  4. Review each app manually: There is a good chance the spyware is disguised, so you might need to review all the apps. FlexiSpy, for example, uses the innocent-sounding “SyncManager” for its name. mSpy uses the name “Update service” to go undetected. You’ll likely need to do some online research to work out what some of the apps on your phone are, and whether they are genuine.
  5. Remove any suspicious apps: Uninstall any apps you’re concerned about. If you can’t delete the app, it might have device administrator permissions. Go to Settings > Security > Advanced > Device Administrators and uncheck the box beside the suspicious app to remove its device administrator permissions. Choose to deactivate the app. You should then be able to delete the app by repeating the steps above.
  6. Restart your phone: Not in safe mode this time. The app you deleted should be gone.

3Update the operating system

If there’s an update available, applying it can sometimes break the spyware app.

It won’t necessarily remove it, though, and isn’t always guaranteed to work. We therefore recommend you use this approach alongside another.

4Carry out a factory reset

This will wipe everything from your phone, including your data, and restore it to its original settings. Make sure you have copied any data you need from the phone first.

To do a factory reset on an Android phone:

  1. Go into Settings, select System, and then Reset Options.
  2. The option you need has two names, depending on which phone you’re using. Select Factory Data Reset or Erase All Data (Factory Reset).
  3. Tap Reset Device and enter your PIN or password to confirm.
    Your device will be restored to its original settings. This may take some time.
  4. You can then choose to Keep Your Apps and Data if you want to restore from an old backup. If you do, make sure that this backup is not from a time when the spyware may have been on the system. The safest option is to Set Up As New.

NOTE: Remember that your login details might have been compromised, so be sure to set up new passwords for your email, social media, ecommerce, and any other accounts.

How to Remove Spyware Apps on iPhone

Illustration of iPhone

1Remove the spyware manually

In the wrong hands, some of the parental control apps from the App Store can be misused to spy on your location. It is worth manually checking your installed apps to see if there is anything suspicious. To do this:

  1. View your installed apps: Go into Settings > General > iPhone Storage.
  2. Search for any suspicious or unexpected apps: Look out for any unexpected parental control apps, such as mSpy, Find my Friends and Family, and Spy Phone Phone Tracker. You can also tap on an app to see how much space it occupies.
  3. Delete any potential spyware apps: Tap ‘Delete App’ to remove it. Before deleting, it’s worth doing a quick bit of research to determine whether the app is actually important to you.

2Update the operating system

Updating the operating system on your iPhone will reverse any jailbreaking and remove any unauthorized apps that were installed outside of the App Store. This is a common way for spyware apps to be installed.

There are two ways to update the iOS:

  1. Connect your phone to your computer and use the iTunes software on your computer to update your device. Click Check for Update.
  2. On your iPhone, go into the Settings app, tap General, then Software Update. If an update is available, tap Download and Install. When the update has downloaded, select Install Now.

3Carry out a factory reset

Carrying out a factory reset will also reverse any jailbreaking and remove any unauthorized apps from your iPhone. It wipes everything from your phone, including your data, and restores it to its original settings. Be sure to copy any data you need (including photos) off the phone first.

To do a factory reset on an iPhone, you have two options:

  1. Connect your phone to your computer and use the iTunes software on your computer to Restore Your iPhone. There is an option to restore from a backup, which will reinstall the iPhone software but will put your backed-up data onto the phone again. This should remove unauthorized apps and reverse jailbreaking, but any authorized apps (such as parental control apps) may remain.
  2. On your iPhone, go into Settings > General > Reset. Choose Erase All Content and Settings.

NOTE: Don’t forget that your login details might have been compromised as well. Be sure to set up new passwords for your email, social media, ecommerce, and any other accounts.

How To Protect Your Phone Against Spying

Here are eight ways to protect your cell phone from spyware apps in 2021:

  1. Keep your phone safe. You can reduce your risk greatly by making sure your phone is only touched by people you trust. While it’s still possible to spy on a phone without touching it, it’s much harder to install spyware without physical access.
  2. Secure your phone. Lock your device with a secure password, PIN, or fingerprint, and turn on authentication for app installs.
  3. Only install trusted apps. When you’re choosing apps in the App Store, look for credible apps with a well-established user base. Be especially careful with simple apps such as calculators that could have been quickly put together as a trojan horse to conceal spyware. As we’ve seen with Free VPN apps, lots of downloads and good user reviews are not always the most reliable signs of trust.
  4. Be careful with incoming links. The easiest way to install spyware remotely is to persuade the phone’s owner to install it. In one example, people in Vietnam were sent links to compromised apps in the Google Play Store and persuaded to download them. Because the apps were in the official store, many users trusted them. Take care with unexpected SMS messages too, as they have previously been used to crash iPhones and infiltrate Android phones.
  5. Secure your data. Use strong passwords for all your online accounts. If someone knows your iCloud password, they could access data remotely from your phone using a solution like Cocospy.
  6. Don’t jailbreak or root the phone. You’re safer if your device operates completely within the safeguards of the Android and iOS operating systems. Spyware can be more easily installed on rooted and jailbroken phones, and your device may be more susceptible to malware.
  7. Keep your phone updated. Updates to your cell phone’s operating system can improve security by removing flaws that have been discovered since the last update. An iOS update will also bring the phone back under Apple’s protective umbrella if it has previously been jailbroken.
  8. Manage permissions tightly. Don’t give apps permission to use your location or access your photos without good reason. Be careful with official apps too. The Find My Friends app on the iPhone can be used to locate people and devices, and Google’s Find My Device and Family Link apps do the same on Android.

Additional Security Tips for Android Users

  1. Block unverified apps: Android phones let you block software being installed from outside the official Google Play Store. Go to Settings > Apps > Menu (top-right icon) > Special Access > Install Unknown Apps. Find the suspicious app and deselect its All From This Source button. This isn’t strong enough to block all spyware, and it won’t protect you from compromised apps in the official store, but it’s a sensible precaution to take.
  2. Keep Google Play Protect enabled: This feature checks apps before you download them, and checks for potentially harmful apps from outside the Google Play Store. Open the Google Play Store, tap the menu, then choose Play Protect. Make sure it’s turned on. It should be on by default, but if someone has been tampering with your phone they might have turned it off.
  3. Run antivirus: You should use antivirus software to scan and protect your device from spyware. Available packages include Avast Mobile Security, Kaspersky Internet Security, and Norton Mobile Security for Android.
  4. Install AppNotifier. It’ll tell you whenever a new app is installed on your phone, or an app is updated.

NOTE: iPhone apps don’t have the freedom to view other apps in the same way Android apps do. This means antivirus apps tend to be more limited on iOS. Instead, to protect yourself on iPhone, you should run a security application, like Avast Mobile Security for iOS or Norton Mobile Security for iOS, to keep you safe from malicious websites.

Can Someone Spy on My Phone Without Touching It?

Most of the time, someone needs physical access to your phone to install spyware onto it. However, as we’ve seen, it’s also possible to install spyware remotely by convincing you to download the compromised app yourself. This can be done through phishing emails, corrupted SMS messages, and trojan horse apps.

Unfortunately, spyware apps aren’t the only way that someone can spy on your phone activity, though.

ISPs, governments, WiFi administrators, search engines, website owners, and hackers all have the capacity to spy on certain aspects of what you do on your phone – without having to install any spyware software.

For example, your ISP (and any government agency that asks to view its logs) can see which websites you visit, how long you spend there, your social media activity, who you send emails to, where you’re located, and much much more.

As we live more and more of our lives online, it’s becoming easier for authorities, big businesses and hackers to spy on our activities. It’s therefore crucial that you start to take steps to secure your phone and protect your online privacy.

Two great places to start are:

  1. Using a Private Browser: Default browsers like Safari, Chrome, or UC Browser are simply not privacy-friendly. Using a genuinely private browser on your phone, like Firefox Focus, will make it much harder for websites to track your activities online.
  2. Using a Virtual Private Network: A VPN is a simple service that provides a secure, encrypted tunnel to the internet. It stops ISPs, governments, and WiFi snoopers from being able to see what you’re doing online. It also gives you a different IP address, which means your activities can’t be traced back to you. To learn more, check out our beginner’s guide to VPNs.

Bottom Line

Figuring out whether someone is spying on your phone is not easy, but there are a number of telltale signs that you should look out for and precautions you can take to prevent spyware apps being installed in the first place.

If you do find spyware on your phone, you may wish to contact the police. Be aware that removing the spyware is likely to alert the perpetrator that you’re on to them. They may also be able to see where you’ve been if you take the phone to a police station, so please proceed with caution and seek expert guidance if you’re worried about your physical safety.

Spyware is not the only way that you can be spied on, either. Your internet traffic is routinely monitored by a number of hidden actors, including your ISP. You should use a private browser and a mobile VPN to protect your privacy and to stop your internet activity being spied on.

About the Author


  • Headshot of Top10VPN.com Site Editor Callum Tennent

    Callum Tennent

    Callum oversees how we test and review VPN services. He's a member of the IAPP, and his advice about VPNs has featured in Forbes and the Internet Society. Read full bio