A Note on Language
In this toolkit, we will sometimes use the word woman/women and feminine pronouns for simplicity and to recognize the significant impact technology-facilitated violence has on women and girls. We recognize that TFGBV also impacts trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit people. We hope that all people impacted by TFGBV will find these documents useful.
The content of this information sheet does not constitute legal advice. The information contained below is current as of February 2023 and discusses what can be done in Canada if you believe that mobile spyware has been placed on your phone or device.
If you suspect that your phone or device is being monitored, use a phone/device you believe is safe when searching for information or calling for support. This could be a computer at a public library or an anti-violence organization or a trusted family member or friend’s phone or computer.
If you suspect someone is monitoring you using technology, the perpetrator may also be making you feel unsafe in other ways. If you would like to explore support options available, you can contact an anti-violence program in your area from a safe phone or device. If you are receiving support from an anti-violence worker, it may be helpful to discuss the monitoring and technology-facilitated violence with them and incorporate a response into your safety plan.
Before taking action, please consider how the perpetrator may react if you stop or limit their ability to monitor you. When discussing a safety plan, you may wish to discuss with an anti-violence worker the possible repercussions of removing access to the perpetrator and build specific safety measures into your safety plan. For information about strategies for enhancing safety plans for technology-facilitated violence see WSC’s Technology Safety Planning Toolkit.
I Am Concerned that Spyware Is on My Phone. Is this Possible?
For spyware to be placed on your phone, someone would need to have physical access to the phone or know your cloud ID and password.
If someone had physical access to your phone, and they knew your password, it is conceivable that spyware was placed on your phone. This information sheet will help you identify whether that is likely, and what steps can be taken to help identify and potentially remedy the spyware monitoring.
What Is Spyware and What Can It Do?
“Mobile spyware” refers to an app or program that is deliberately placed on someone's mobile device to monitor that person. Mobile spyware is a category of stalkerware. Stalkerware is defined as “all spyware that is explicitly sold or licensed to facilitate intimate partner violence, abuse, or harassment, inclusive of deleteriously intruding into the abused partner’s private life by way of physical or digital actions.”
Depending on the type of spyware installed, mobile spyware will most likely monitor:
- Call history, including phone number, date, and length of call
- Text messages, including phone number and content
- Keystrokes that have been typed
- Internet browsing, including history and bookmarks
- Location of the phone
- Photos taken on the phone
- Emails downloaded onto the phone
If the phone has been “jailbroken” (i.e. hardware restrictions by Apple and the wireless carrier have been on an iPhone) or “rooted” (i.e. the Android operating software code was modified and other software blocked by the manufacturer was installed), spyware software can monitor more including:
• Certain messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype
• Phone conversations
• Using the phone’s microphone to record the phone’s surroundings
It can be difficult to identify whether spyware is installed. Since most spyware products operate in “stealth” or hidden mode, the products cannot be easily detected on the phone.
Once the software is installed, the perpetrator can monitor all the above activity via an online website or an App.
If It’s Not Spyware, What Else Can It Be?
There are other ways that a person can track or monitor the activities of another person using different technology such as:
- Monitoring information on Facebook
- Logging into the iCloud or Google account associated with the phone, which accesses sensitive information including location
- Using phone functions such as Find My Phone to locate the owner of the phone. These built-in capabilities advertised as helpful tools can also provide location tracking in the context of criminal harassment (stalking), for example.
I Own an iPhone. What Are the Risks of Spyware on iPhones?
If you have an iPhone 6 or higher and have been regularly updating the iOS (operating system), the likelihood of spyware being on your phone without your knowledge is unlikely.
If you have an older iPhone model, or have not been updating your iOS regularly, the risk of spyware being on your iPhone without your knowledge is possible if: (a) someone had physical access to your device; (b) that person was aware of your device password, as well as your Apple ID login and password; and (c) your iOS is not able to be updated to the latest version.
If another person does have access to your physical device, your device password, as well as Apple ID login details, and you think spyware is on your device, please contact your local anti-violence organization to develop a safety plan.
I Own an Android. What Are the Risks of Spyware on Phones that Use the Android Operating System?
This includes phones by Samsung, Sony, Google Pixel, Huawei, LG, HTC, and Nokia.
The Android operating system is more vulnerable to spyware being placed on someone’s device without their knowledge. It is also easy for a user to conceal traces of spyware on Android devices. If you think another person has access to your physical device or your device password, and you believe spyware is on your device, please contact your local anti-violence organization from a safe device for further information on spyware and safety planning.
Can I Take My Phone to the Shop Where It Was Purchased or to a Local “Tech Expert” to Check for Spyware?
Certain forms of spyware can be easily identified by an in-store, consumer retail outlet “tech expert.” But there are also forms of spyware that would require a more forensic examination that is not readily available to individuals who work in computer or smartphone stores.
Depending on your situation, if the stalking/surveillance through spyware is just one part of the abuse you are experiencing, you may wish to seek support from a family violence service to put a safety plan in place.
I Think that Spyware Is Being Used on My Phone or Devices Right Now. What Can I Do to Protect Myself?
If you do not have the opportunity to contact an anti-violence organization, but have reason to believe that spyware is tracking you, here are some temporary, emergency steps you can take to protect yourself:
- Consider using another phone or safe device for private communications or other activities such as searching for support services. Continue to use the suspected monitored phone for “public” activities until it is safe to check the device for spyware. This combination can be helpful if you do not want the perpetrator to know that you suspect spyware is on the phone.
- As a precaution, have private conversations on another device or in person out of earshot of the suspected device, as some spyware is able to record the sound in the area surrounding a phone/device.
- Keep in mind that spyware can monitor location, so be careful about where you go with your phone. For example, if you take the phone to the police, the perpetrator may then know that the phone is at the police station. Think through any potential risks and how to plan for safety.
- Spyware will only communicate information while the phone is turned on and is connected to the internet. Turning off the phone or turning on Airplane Mode will allow temporary relief from GPS tracking or any danger of the camera capturing pictures, audio, or video.
However, turning on Airplane Mode or turning off the phone is only a temporary measure to prevent spyware from tracking your phone. Once Airplane Mode is disconnected and the phone is turned back on, the spyware will access the activities (for example, a photo taken) and location that occurred while it was in Airplane Mode and/or disconnected. Consideration should be given as to when you can safely turn your device back on.
- If it is safe to do so, performing a factory reset on your device, ensuring the operating system is up to date, and changing your Apple ID/iCloud or Google login passwords might rid the device of spyware. This will work for many types of spyware but not all. Seeking further information from your anti-violence organization is advisable. An anti-violence organization will be able to assist you with: 1) how to preserve evidence if necessary; 2) how the perpetrator might react if you remove their ability to monitor you; and 3) developing a safety plan.
- Consider using a reputable anti-virus or anti-malware program to detect and remove spyware. Some spyware programs can be detected and removed using these programs.
- As a last resort, purchasing a brand-new phone should remove the threat of spyware. However, if purchasing a new Android device, avoid using the full backup from the old device when setting up the new one and change your Google login passwords on a safe device. If you have an iPhone, changing your iCloud password should be sufficient unless there are additional ways (desktop computer and key logger) in which the perpetrator is monitoring you.
- Note: On Android phones, check the security settings and disable “allow installation from unknown sources” and select “verify apps” to assist in preventing spyware from being installed.
Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) is part of a continuum of violence that can be both online and in-person. If you or someone you know is experiencing TFGBV, you are not alone. You can use sheltersafe.ca to find a shelter/transition house near you to discuss options and create a safety plan. You don’t need to stay in a shelter to access free, confidential services and support.
Special thanks to Christopher Parsons, Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy; Dr. Diarmaid Harkin, Deakin University; and Dr. Adam Molnar and Ms. Erica Vowles, Deakin University.
Adapted for Canada with permission from WESNET’s Tech Safety project, based on their resource Mobile Spyware: Identification, Removal and Prevention.