Is my phone being tracked? How to tell and what can you do about it?

You probably already know that your phone is being tracked and its location recorded constantly by GPS satellites and cell towers. And you probably also know that many of the apps you have loaded on your phone are constantly pinging your cell network to track you and determine your location at any given point in time.

 

Though this can seem invasive (and in many cases it is), you generally accept it because your maps app needs to know where you are so that it can give you accurate directions and because it's convenient to have certain other apps know where you are so that they can offer you localized recommendations and services based on your present location.

But what about when you suspect that someone else – an unauthorized party – is actively tracking your phone? Have you ever asked yourself: "is my phone being tracked?" It can be an incredibly disconcerting prospect to consider because it would constitute a level of invasiveness that you certainly wouldn't accept under any circumstances.

Mobile tracking apps

These days there's a smartphone app for just about everything, including apps that can be discreetly loaded onto your phone that can track your phone's location and record and capture everything you're doing on your phone at any time – all without you knowing a thing about it. Sometimes these applications are deliberately malicious in nature, but others are marketed towards parents or caregivers to keep track of their children or elderly relatives for their own safety.

But we all know that tools designed for one particular purpose can often be abused and used for nefarious purposes beyond what they were originally intended to be used for. Often, these types of tracking apps are repurposed by jealous lovers who use them to spy on their significant others, or by private investigators looking to gather information about a specific individual.

Either way, you as a smartphone user obviously wouldn't want anyone furtively monitoring everything you're doing on your phone – tracking your location, taking screenshots, accessing your camera and microphone, recording your phone calls, intercepting your texts and emails, logging your keystrokes, and so on. But, unfortunately, there are apps that can do all that and more; and they can be installed onto your smartphone without your knowledge or consent.

And it's not just the repurposing of conventional tracking apps available from official app stores that could pose a serious threat to your privacy. Malicious apps downloaded from unofficial app stores and cybercriminals using various methods to inject your phone with malware also constitute a considerable threat. Hackers and cybercriminals often develop malicious apps and malware that can be secretly installed onto your phone, even remotely. These malicious apps can monitor all of your activity on your phone, track your location, intercept your communications, and steal your passwords and other sensitive personal and financial data.

How to tell if your phone is being tracked?

So how do you know if your phone is being tracked, though? And what can you do about it?

There are a few things to look out for if you suspect someone may be surreptitiously tracking your phone. Here are a few red flags to keep an eye out for that could indicate that your phone is being tracked and someone may be monitoring your activity on your smartphone:

  • Your phone heats up even when you're not using it
  • Your battery drains considerably faster than normal
  • Your data usage increases inexplicably
  • You notice screenshots/recordings in your camera roll that you didn't take
  • You hear strange background noises when making phone calls
  • Your phone reboots unexpectedly
  • You notice your phone's performance has gotten sluggish
  • Your phone takes longer to shut down
  • You notice your phone waking randomly when it should be idle

The red flags listed above can be indications that there are processes running and consuming resources on your phone. And if you aren't actively using your phone or if you aren't aware of any apps that are running that would cause your phone to behave in any of the ways mentioned in the list above, then someone may very well be secretly tracking your phone.

How to avoid being tracked on your mobile

Luckily, there are several things you can do to reduce the risks of having your phone tracked by an unauthorized party, be it by a cybercriminal or by someone you know.

First of all, you should be wary of jailbreaking your phone and downloading apps from unofficial app stores, where they haven't necessarily been properly vetted for security. When you download an app from an unofficial app store, you run the risk of downloading a malicious piece of software that can potentially give cybercriminals access to your phone and the ability to track it and monitor your activity.

Similarly, it is important to never open any links or attachments in any unsolicited email or text message. Cybercriminals often rely on phishing scams to trick unsuspecting smartphone users into downloading malware onto their devices, malware that could be used for tracking purposes.

Installing a trusted antivirus app onto your phone can also be greatly beneficial in preventing spyware and other malicious applications from being surreptitiously installed on your device.

On top of that, it's also imperative to protect your phone with a strong passcode lock – ideally alphanumeric in nature – to mitigate the risk of an unauthorized individual breaking into your phone and installing a tracking app.

What can you do if you think someone's tracking your phone?

If you suspect that someone is already actively tracking your phone, then the first thing you should do is run your antivirus or spyware removal app to run a scan and remove any malicious applications from your phone.

You can also restart your phone or run an operating system update if one is available. Then, you should go through each and every app on your phone, and if you notice an app that you don't recognize or don't recall downloading, delete it immediately. 

As a last resort, if nothing else works and you still suspect that your phone is compromised, you can perform a full factory reset of your device – just make sure you have a backup of your phone ready to restore once you've completed the factory reset.

Keep in mind, though, that you should go through each app that you're restoring and make sure each app is something you recognize and something you know you've downloaded in the past. You don't want to go through an entire factory reset and then restore a spy app right back onto your phone!

Finding out that your phone is being tracked is scary and incredibly unsettling. The good thing, though, is that there are various things you can do to prevent unauthorized individuals from installing monitoring apps on your phone in the first place, just as there are various specific remedial actions you can take if you suspect that your phone is being tracked. Being aware of the risks and knowing what to do to prevent your phone from being tracked is invaluable and can go a long way in protecting your personal privacy and securing your sensitive data.

Written by: Attila Tomaschek

Attila is a Hungarian-American currently living in Budapest. Being in the VPN game for over 5 years, along with his acute understanding of the digital privacy space enables him to share his expertise with ProPrivacy readers. Attila has been featured as a privacy expert in press outlets such as Security Week, Silicon Angle, Fox News, Reader’s Digest, The Washington Examiner, Techopedia, Disruptor Daily, DZone, and more. He has also contributed bylines for several online publications like SC Magazine UK, Legal Reader, ITProPortal, BetaNews, and Verdict.

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