Like it or not, most of us have grown used to our phones being spied upon. Dystopian novels like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are so ingrained in our consciousness that a 2014 study found 74% of Americans surveyed said they shouldn’t give up privacy for the sake of safety.
Nonetheless, there’s a considerable argument that US citizens have given up on their own privacy, and thanks to further laws like the so-called “Snooper’s Charter” in the UK, state surveillance is increasing.
But let’s not forget that other parties can tap into your smartphone — most troublingly, hackers and extortionists, but also your employer (sometimes legally!), an ex-partner, or even, in the case of celebrities, the press! They might be listening in to your calls, reading and sending texts and emails, or altering information on your interface.
Here are just a few things to watch out for.
1. Battery Problems
Before iOS and Android caught on, battery troubles were a sign of a phone tap. Hot batteries remain a concern when it comes to smartphones.
If you’re taking full advantage of your phone, using numerous apps and consuming a lot of media, you’re probably very familiar with an overheating battery. You might’ve even gone into a phone store and enquired about it, only to be told that it’s fairly standard for smartphones. Some carriers are only concerned if you burn yourself!
However, it can also be a sign that uninvited software is running in the background, allowing someone else to listen in.
Furthermore, be suspicious if your phone simply isn’t holding charge. Playing Pokemon Go and watching YouTube will devour your power, but if it’s consistently running low, that’s a little odd. Older handsets don’t hold charge, however, so you need to eliminate other possibilities before looking for nefarious purposes.
Equally, you need to take note what other reasons your handset might be hot: have you been sunbathing with it nearby? Have you been using lots of apps consecutively, or watching numerous videos? Is a phone case locking that heat in?
Also battery life for the Switch bad? Just use that external battery pack you bought for Pokemon Go that you don't play anymore ;)
— Amy Graves (@ObvItsAmy) January 14, 2017
Still, high temperatures and low power can be indicative of malicious software, so you then need to look at other signs…
2. Increased Data Usage
You should be scouring your phone bills anyway, partly because having a hands-on approach to your finances can save you a lot of cash, but notably as a way of spotting spyware.
We know many apps vacuum up a lot of data, but it’s pretty easy to reduce what you’re using, including connecting to free Wi-Fi offered by restaurants and stores (though that does come with risks). Malicious software uses your data allowance too, in their case to send information its collected to an outside source. That means it’s not solely relying on your home Wi-Fi: it’ll be consuming a lot wherever you are.
at&t: you didn't pay your phone bill this month
me: that is an alternative fact
— Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) January 22, 2017
Unless you’ve just downloaded a new app that requires lots of battery and data, or you’re allowing your children to use your device while out and about, you’ll know roughly how much data you use each month. If this increases dramatically, you need to narrow down exactly why that’s happening — and if you can’t find the reason, it might that a third party is intercepting your messages.
3. Unwanted Ads and Apps
We’re overly familiar with our smartphone interfaces, so much so that it’s easy to forget you’ve downloaded an app. It can sit, unnoticed for a good 6 months or so without you realizing it’s there.
But it’s imperative that you know exactly what’s on your phone, especially the apps running in the background. If you’ve not installed them, they could be malicious.
One such piece of malware that tampers with your cell is Hummer, a Trojan that’s infected millions of Android devices across the world. With high concentrations of affected devices in countries like India, Russia, and the Philippines, Hummer was first spotted in 2014, and over the following couple of years, has taken the title of the Android Trojan virus with the most worldwide infections.
It’s estimated that, if the virus’ creators (likely based in China) get just 50¢ per infection, they could make a profit of over $500,000 a day.
You’ll notice intrusive ads too. The problem is, Hummer isn’t exactly hiding. Once installed, the virus aims to obtain root access — ie. administrative rights — to your phone or tablet, which lets it download unwanted content, and makes it incredibly difficult to get rid of. Even a Factory Reset doesn’t work.
With a daily average of 1.2 million affected devices, Hummer can generate a lot of ad traffic, so again, noticing an increase in data usage should help you spot anything dodgy going on.
4. Performance Issues
HummingBad is a similar Trojan, one with an estimated 10 million victims. As with Hummer, it generally finds its way onto a device when a user accidentally downloads an app that’s purporting to be something else — a fraudulent version of YouTube or WhatsApp, for instance.
Cybercriminals are making some $300,000 a month from running such apps and then promoting pop-up adverts.
The malware also gets root access (or, in some cases, tricks you into downloaded a fake systems update for complete domination of your activities), then transmits information to a server controlled by Yingmob, a group of Chinese hackers. That means that, in addition to so-called “click-fraud”, HummingBad could intercept all your messages.
But all that data being transmitted and received is likely to considerably slow your device down. It’s not isolated to HummingBad — you’ll typically suffer performance lags whatever method a cybercriminal uses to bug your phone.
Of course, real apps will take up power, but they shouldn’t noticeably affect your device’s reaction time.
You can check which apps are using the most RAM. On iOS, you just need to go on Settings > General > Storage & iCloud Usage > Manage Storage. On Android, click Settings > Apps and swipe over to Running. You’ll probably see Photos & Camera and Music near the top of the list, but from here, you can properly assess your app usage, and check for anything that doesn’t ring true.
5. Strange Texts
What you might simply pass off as a nuisance, spam, or a wrong number can actually be an alert that something’s up with your smartphone.
Suspicious SMS texts will be a seemingly-randomized series of digits, characters, and symbols, which will immediately strike you as odd but perhaps not especially malicious.
Do not ignore them.
The most likely cause of this is a fault in the spyware used by cybercriminals. If it hasn’t installed properly, coded messages will appear in your inbox that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. These random data sets are instructions sent from the servers of a hacker in order to tamper with the fraudulent application. Alternatively, it could be the app trying to contact its creator.
Likewise, if any family or friends say you’re sending them bizarre texts or emails, this is a sign that your phone is compromised — and potentially that the software that’s infected your phone is trying to install on the devices of your loved ones!
Keep an eye out for any activity you don’t recognize. Look at messaging chains, social media profiles, and check your Sent and Outbox. If you can’t remember sending something, be suspicious.
6. Websites Changing Appearances
This is a tricky one, but staying vigilant could save you getting ripped off.
It’s a scam we’re all familiar with, but no one’s infallible. We all forget advice, and make mistakes. If that mistake is clicking on a URL in a text or email, it can cost you big bucks. However, you don’t even have to be redirected to a fraudulent link through a message: if there’s a malicious app working on your phone, it might be altering the appearance of websites you frequent anyway.
The malware acts as a proxy, intercepting communications between you and the site you’re trying to visit. It might be presenting a false page to you, or simply keeping track of anything you type. And no, it doesn’t matter if you’re on Private Browsing.
This really becomes a problem if you’re using a site that requires personal details, whether that’s a password, banking details, or mere Personally Identifiable Information (PII), which is a major currency on the Dark Web. PayPal, for example, is a worry; so too is mobile or online banking.
Every search inquiry you make is stored in your Google account, whether or not you clear your browser history, or use private browsing.
— trutherbotgreen (@trutherbotgreen) January 13, 2017
You might not notice any differences, but if you do (and particularly if you’ve noticed other signs of a potential breach in your smartphone security), it could just be the website experimenting with a new interface. Compare the mobile version with that displayed on a PC, bearing in mind responsive themes will look slightly different.
Worried About Your Phone?
Don’t be paranoid: most of us won’t be victim to a phone tapping.
Nonetheless, it’s worth brushing up on some security measures. Knowing which is the most secure Operating System will help. Only downloading from official app stores will also reduce the risk, as Apple and Google screen all programs submitted before letting them become available to the masses. Similarly, you should definitely install some anti-virus software.
What other signs should you watch out for? Have you ever suspected your phone communications being intercepted?