Table of contents
Once you've read this guide to identifying and removing cell phone tracking software, go find out about your rights to stop telemarketing, robocalls, and debt collection, including how to sign up for the national do-not-call registry, in our consumer guide to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
There is no fool-proof way to detect if there is tracking software on your phone. The best way to detect malware is to download security software and run regular scans on your cell phone.
Other common indicators of tracking software are listed below. This list is not exhaustive, so you may be infected with tracking software even if you don’t experience any of these symptoms.
- You regularly hear unusual or odd background noises and/or clicks when using the phone.
- Your phone has trouble maintaining battery life or the battery continuously stays warm even when in idle mode
- The phone sometimes lights up when you aren’t making a phone call or using any other function.
- The app that tells you which programs are currently running keeps showing a suspicious program running in the background.
- You seem to have trouble shutting your phone off, or it stays lit up after you’ve powered down.
- Your cell-phone interface will change automatically by itself or the brightness and color combination will not work properly.
- Your phone becomes slower while surfing the internet or other application
- You see different system files in file manager of the phone which cannot be manually removed.
- The phone’s performance decreases rapidly or even jams frequently.
- Your phone indicates that there is free space available yet you are unable to access it.
It is not necessary that all or any of these signs appear but in almost every case if you experience at least a few of these issues, you should take further steps to ensure their phone is malware free.
The ways to remove and deactivate tracking threats on your phone range from easy day-to-day habits to extreme measures like formatting your phone. We’ve listed some steps you can take below, ordered from easiest to most extreme. You should consider the remedy that is most applicable to you, depending on your level of concern and your phone’s vulnerability.
- Install software/Firmware Updates when available: Keep your phone up to date. This includes both the software updates and firmware updates. Although this won’t necessarily help you remove a tracking app if it has already been installed, it will close possible vulnerabilities with each security update that you install.
- Look for unfamiliar programs that are installed: Look through all your apps and installations for anything unfamiliar. There may be quite a few strangely named programs and services running that are perfectly normal. But if you see a program or app that you did not install, then you should do your research into what it is because that could be the center of your troubles.
- Install anti-malware software and scan your phone: Install an anti-malware application to protect your phone. These programs work just like they do on your computer – it will scan your phone for any possible threats, isolate those threats, and then delete the threats. Make sure to keep your anti-malware apps up to date. Lifehacker lists a few.
- Delete Programs: If you are able to locate an unfamiliar program or if you are able to locate the exact program that you believe is threatening your privacy, simply delete that program. You should also delete any backup copies of that program. Once the tracking program has been removed, all is good.
- Factory Reset: If you are having trouble locating the exact program which contains the tracking software then you might be left with only one option – factory reset. Although this method is the best way to eliminate unwanted programs or apps, there are a couple caveats.
First, everything on your phone will be reset back to its default settings – the factory reset wipes your cell phone clean and reinstalls a new and updated version of your phone’s OS. This means you’ll lose all the information currently saved in your phone. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to back up your data before proceeding down this route.
This brings us to our second caveat; a factory reset may still not work if the malicious program is backed up on your computer. When you install a malicious program, sometimes that program gets backed up on your computer. If you do a factory reset and later reinstall that program, then nothing has changed – your phone has been reset but the program has been reinstalled and is now back on your phone.
That’s why our recommendation is that if you choose the “factory reset” option, you should only reinstall apps that you completely trust. If you are unfamiliar with the app or are unsure, do not reinstall it.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We thus encourage you to be careful and to follow these best practices when it comes to keeping malware or tracking software off your phone (these practices can also be effective for avoiding other privacy violations including spam phone calls, texts, emails):
- Only allow people you trust to handle your cell phone. Never give it to someone that you don’t know.
- Download programs only from safe sources and reputable developers
- Always password protect your cell phone login screen.
- Always require a password before downloading an app.
- Download the latest anti-malware software as described earlier in this article. Always keep it updated and scan your phone daily.
- Keep your Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connection in a secure mode and never accept or access Bluetooth connections that you are unfamiliar with.
- Always be alert about the unusual behavior of the mobile phone. Such as slower performance, lower brightness, auto restarts, battery level decreasing etc.
- Do not give your confidential information to any third party application or website. If you don't have to give out your name, address, phone number, email, or other personally identifiable information, don't give it out.
- Do not install pirated version of any applications. These are sometimes merged with malware.
In conclusion, all users should be aware that tracking applications are becoming more prevalent as smart phones become more popular. We should all educate ourselves on the risks and threats of downloading unfamiliar software from an unfamiliar source. Hopefully this above explanation and quick tips will help you steer clear of any malware or tracking threats.
Lots of cell phone apps track your location and report back information about the way you use your phone. Most of it is completely harmless and sometimes even very helpful to increase the usability of the programs. It’s much better to break up this “good” or harmless (consensual tracking) and the type of tracking that you don’t know is happening and is being used for malicious purposes (non-consensual tracking).
All tracking software does relatively the same thing – it tracks and monitors your behavior and/or location. But did you know that most tracking software is voluntarily downloaded and installed by you, the user. It is thus important to divide cell-phone tracking technology into two groups – consensual tracking and non-consensual tracking.
A consensual tracking application is one that you have personally downloaded and explicitly granted permission to access your location. For example, when you check in on Foursquare, Facebook, and Yelp, you are explicitly allowing those apps to know your GPS location. Another example is when a parent wants to track their child’s location or when you install an app that helps you locate your cell phone when you misplace. Lastly, any other app listed under the Location Services tab in your phone’s settings is considered a consensual tracking application.
Nevertheless, this article does not address these consensual tracking apps because these are voluntarily downloaded by you. To prevent these apps from accessing your location and data is quite easy – simply deny the app permission to access your location through your phone’s settings.
The more concerning form of tracking software, and probably the main reason why you are still reading this article, are the non-consensual apps. These are apps that track you without your explicit approval and most likely, without your knowledge that they have ever been installed. Such apps are sometimes even downloaded onto your phone by a third party (friend, parent, ex-lover, etc.).
Non-consensual tracking software can make it on to your phone in a number of ways. We have listed two of the more common ways this occurs:
- Initial Download: Tracking software may be installed on your phone the instant you download and install an app. Sometimes, “evil” app developers package tracking software with a popular game or app to encourage users to download it. The tracking software runs in the background while you have been fooled into believing that you have only downloaded a fun game. But we should note, this is less of an issue with high-security cell phone providers, like Apple’s iPhone.
Nevertheless, even if your cell phone provider has a high level of security there are still other ways for these apps to get on your phone. If someone has had access to your phone and wanted to track you, they may bypass the security measures and install a stealth tracking program that runs in the background. These apps tend to monitor your keystrokes as well as your location and they are sometimes undetectable.
- App Update: Other times, a user might install a clean version of the app but at some subsequent point in time, you may download an update that installs the tracking software. Again, this concern usually applies only to cell phones with lower security standards (like Jail Broken iPhones).
Although tracking software may be installed on almost any smart phone, a quick review should help clarify. The main reason why we want to differentiate between phones is to help you narrow down your research. When you are researching software concerns of your smart phone you should focus almost exclusively on your brand because each phone is different and has different security concerns.
- Apple iOS – This operating system is generally safer against third party application tracking software because Apple has a strict approval process regarding what apps they allow in their App Store.
- Android – For those of you who have Android-based phones, the concern for security is slightly more serious because Google’s level of scrutiny over third party software is lower than that of Apple’s. To be able to offer its users more features and options, Google has lowered its requirements for app approval, thus making it easier to sneak apps into the Android Store (now called Google Play) that contain malware or spyware.
- Jail Broken – If you have Jail Broken your Apple iPhone then your situation is more akin to Android rather to the standard iPhone because the apps available to Jail Broken phones do not receive security checks or pass Apple/Google scrutiny. Instead, they have been merely uploaded by the app developers for you to download immediately.