A quick Google search for “spy software” yields over a 100 million results. Clearly, there is massive interest in spying software and gadgets. Irrespective of the motivation or justification for spying (such as spousal infidelity), spying is illegal and a gross invasion of privacy in most countries around the world.
This article takes you through the different methods that your spouse, employer or anyone else with an interest — nefarious or otherwise — in your private affairs can use to snoop on you. In each case, I have endeavored to provide practical defenses.
Smartphone Spying Applications
The digital age has accorded us many comforts and conveniences. One of these is the smartphone. But, our high dependence on smartphones makes us easy targets for spying. Mobile spy applications are selling like hot cakes.
Once installed on your smartphone, such applications use your data connection to secretly send logs to a remote server. These logs can include:
- Text messages
- Data from Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Skype and Viber
Spy applications can also upload stored camera images and can activate the phone’s microphone so that the spy can listen in on your conversations. Advanced applications even allow the spy to listen in on phone conversations using a technique similar to conference calling. Spy applications also log and upload location information using the built-in GPS receiver, wireless networks or cell network IDs.
These applications do not have a user interface so you can’t easily locate them on your smartphone. The spy can access the logs via a web interface from anywhere in the world.
What to do: Actual possession of the smartphone is required in order to install spyware. It takes only five minutes on average. The spy will usually achieve this by waiting until you leave your phone unattended. More devious and creative methods can also be used such as pretending their phone has a dead battery and borrowing your phone to make a call.
Therefore, the first common sense step to defending yourself is to ensure you have your phone with you at all times. Next, implement the following measures:
- Use a good strong screen lock password
- Avoid pattern locks and Face Unlock on Android, which can easily be hacked.
- Beware of prying eyes when typing your password. You would be surprised at how easy it is to read someone’s unlock code when they are unaware you are looking.
- It is possible to tell if your phone has spyware installed by watching the phone for weird behavior such as the backlight coming on for no particular reason.
- Check your data notification bar to see if your phone is connecting to the Internet for no apparent reason.
- Monitor your bandwidth usage using a data monitoring application. Spy applications tend to hog bandwidth as they upload logs to the remote server. Check your list of applications for any strange apps and uninstall anything you don’t recognize.
- If you can’t find anything, but strongly believe that your Android phone has been compromised, back up your data and restore the phone to factory settings.
- Install a mobile security application such as F-Secure to prevent future spyware installations.
iPhones need to be Jailbroken in order for spyware to be installed. The best evidence of jailbreaking on an iPhone is the Cydia app (see image below), which provides access to the alternative store for jailbroken iOS devices. If you find the Cydia icon, you have good reason to suspect your iPhone is bugged. Get rid it by upgrading the firmware; this reverses the jailbreak. However, the fact that you can’t find the Cydia icon does not mean that your phone hasn’t been jailbroken. The spy may have covered his/her tracks by installing an app that hides icons. SBSettings is a Cydia app which can prevent certain icons from appearing. It even hides its own icon. Locate SBSettings by swiping from left to right on your status bar. Open it and check to see if there are any hidden icons.
Remote access applications and key loggers are the weapons of choice for spies keen on hacking into your computer. An application such as VNC allows someone to remotely view all your activity on a computer. A key logger records all key strokes. All the spy needs to do is read the log and find passwords to your email, Facebook and other sites.
What to do: To avoid your computer from being spied on, take the following measures:
- Set your computer to lock the screen whenever it is idle for three minutes.
- Use a good strong password.
- As a general rule, never allow anyone to use your computer as an administrator. If you share a computer with other people at home, create separate user accounts. Only the administrator should be able to install applications. If this is not possible, regularly check the list of installed software to see if there is any software you don’t recognize.
If you suspect your office computer is being monitored, avoid visiting any sites that you wouldn’t want your boss to know about.
It is important to mention that most spyware is completely undetectable. A key logger may not appear in your Add/Remove Programs list or even in the task manager. To get rid of key loggers and other spyware in Windows you need to install an anti-spyware program such as the free version of SpyBot Search & Destroy or Malwarebytes. If you are unable to fix the problem, boot into safe mode (press and hold down F8 as your computer restarts) and try running the anti-spyware program again. MacScan works well for Macs. If you still can’t get rid of the problem, back up your important files and re-install the operating system. That should completely delete malware still in your system. Also, read Aibek’s article on how to cheat key logger software.
GPS tracking devices
Planting a GPS device on a car is extremely easy. Any self-respecting spy will think of placing a GPS tracker on your car.
What to do: There are many tell-tale signs that your car is being tracked. If you suspect someone is keeping tabs on you via GPS, the following are the ideal spots for hiding GPS devices:
- Inside plastic bumper
- Under bug shield
- Under grill
- Gap between hood and window
- Under front dashboard
- Inside door speakers
- Top of the roof
- Inside rear speakers
- Under rear dashboard fabric
- Inside the rear third brake light
- Inside the rear plastic bumper
- In the glove compartment
These days, trackers can be as small as a matchbox, so you have to be really thorough. You should also check your vehicle’s OBD (On Board Diagnostics) port for anything plugged in. This is the port that your mechanic plugs in a computer to perform a computer diagnostic. It is usually located under the front dashboard. An OBD GPS tracker has the advantage of drawing power directly from the car’s electrical system. Non-OBD tracking devices will eventually run out of power so anyone keen on keeping tabs on you over the long haul will prefer an OBD device. If gadgets are not your thing, you can always hire an electronics specialist to check your car for any tracking devices.
You can also jam a GPS signal with a GPS jamming gadget. These gadgets are easily available at online stores and only cost a couple of bucks. Most of them plug into a car’s 12 V adapter and can interfere with any GPS signal within a range of 500 meters. However, GPS jamming devices are illegal in some countries, such as the United States and Australia.
Cameras & Microphones
Due to great advances in camera technology such as the introduction of night vision and miniaturization, hidden cameras are being deployed on a massive scale.
What to do: If you suspect there are hidden cameras in your home, office or car, you can begin by searching the usual places. For buildings, check:
- Light fixtures
- Smoke detectors
- Underneath table tops
- Flower pots
- Lamp shades
- Wall pictures
- Any other place that could conceivably conceal a miniature camera
Also, look for black dots in walls that may alert you to the presence of a pinhole camera. You can also turn off the lights at night and look for tiny green or red LED lights. Shine a flashlight against mirrors to pick up any hidden cameras. In cars, check the rear view mirror, roof and dashboard. If you want to be absolutely sure, a radio frequency (RF) detector equipped with a hidden camera lens finder costs less than 50 bucks and will detect all types of hidden cameras. Wireless cameras transmit at frequencies ranging from 900 MHz to 5.8 GHz. The RF detector will alert you to a transmission and you can then investigate the area further to determine the source. The lens camera finder will detect wired cameras. It emits red LED light which bounces off the lens of the spy camera. All you need to do is look through the scope to see the sparkle of the camera lens. Hidden microphones can also be detected using an RF detector.
Finding out that you are being illegally spied on by your boss or a peeping tom is fairly easy to deal with; notify the law enforcement authorities immediately.
But if it’s your spouse who is spying on you, it can be pretty upsetting and even traumatizing, especially if you are completely innocent. The thought that a loved one harbors mistrust can evoke strong emotions. I can’t tell you what to do in such a situation; you would have to make that decision on your own. On the other hand, if your spouse spies on you and catches you cheating, that would leave you in a catch-22.
Have you ever been spied on? What did you do about it? Is there any instance where spying is justifiable? Let’s have a healthy discussion in the comments below.