What is Cell Phone Spyware?

C. Mitchell

Cell phone spyware is any kind of tracking or other privacy-invasive software that is installed, usually surreptitiously, on a cell phone. Spyware applications track anything from a phone’s physical location to numbers dialed, text messages sent, and Web pages browsed. Most cell phone spyware takes the form of malware, which is tracking code that is downloaded to the phone disguised as something else. Other spyware is purchased and independently installed, usually when one person wants to track another’s phone habits. Cell phone spyware can usually be prevented by careful downloading practices, and can be removed with anti-spyware programs.

Cell phones.
Cell phones.

Spyware has long been a problem for personal computer owners. The rise of Internet-ready smartphones has led to a spyware evolution, with spyware now infecting phones just as it has long infected computers. The hallmark of spyware programs is that they track, or “spy,” on the user and his or her habits. Sometimes cell phone spying comes in the form of monitoring Websites surfed or keys pushed, as is usually the case on a computer. Spyware on GPS-enabled phones can also sometimes track the phone’s position in space, which carries with it many risks.

Smartphones may be more susceptible to spyware than other mobile phones.
Smartphones may be more susceptible to spyware than other mobile phones.

Most cell phone spyware applications are designed for advertising purposes. They will track personal information like a user’s viewing and sending habits in order to deliver ads, either as direct-market text messages and spam e-mails or as Website advertising. Sometimes these ads are innocuous, but other times they can be very detrimental to a phone’s proper functioning. Persistent pop-up ads can block applications and can be very distracting. Floods of unwanted text messages can be costly and can inhibit legitimate communications, and Webpage ads can often make page content all but unreadable on a phone’s small screen. Ads directed to a person's physical location can also be an unsettling invasion of privacy.

Cell phone spyware is also used by cybercriminals to try and get personal information like banking numbers, passwords to certain sensitive Websites, and phone billing records. The rise of mobile financial services paired with the willingness of so many people to store sensitive information in their phones makes criminal use of spyware frequently profitable. Both criminal-oriented and advertising-oriented spyware is usually something that the phone owner has unknowingly downloaded to the phone. Spyware manufacturers sneak the spyware code onto phones by bundling it with attractive downloads, particularly “free” ringtones, wallpapers, and apps. Spyware also comes in unsolicited text messages and e-mails, usually as an attachment that, if opened, infects the phone.

In other instances, spyware is intentionally downloaded. Commercial tracking software programs function the same way as advertising and theft-motivated programs, but instead of serving ads or feeding personal content to a criminal, the program allows the purchaser to monitor how and where the phone is being used. Spouses who think their partner might be cheating and parents of teenagers are among those to whom commercial spyware programs are marketed. Most of these sorts of programs never give the phone owner any reason to suspect that they are being tracked.

The only way to remove cell phone spyware applications is by running an antivirus, anti-spyware, or spyware blocker program on the phone. Most cell phone service providers sell or recommend anti-spyware programs, and these programs can usually be purchased wherever cell phone software and accessories are sold. Some anti-spyware programs are available for download online, but caution should be exercised. Not all anti-spyware programs are legitimate. Many, in fact, have been shown to not only fail at removing spyware, but also actually install still more spyware, thus worsening rather than bettering the condition of the phone.

Spyware might be downloaded onto a phone's micro SD card without the using knowing it.
Spyware might be downloaded onto a phone's micro SD card without the using knowing it.

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Discussion Comments


Cell phone spyware -- remember that sleep I was going to get? Lovely. I don't do any banking on my cell phone simply because I've wondered how secure the information was. Knowing what I know now, I doubt I will do much banking on my phone.

I have adware and virus protection programs on my home computer, so I feel a little safer in banking online and paying bills online with that machine, since I can at least get a notification if something is up. My cell phone will just go blithely along with whatever and will give up the information freely, apparently.

Life in the Technology Age.

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