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mobile spyware debugging

Is my phone bugged?

If you are going through (or have recently gone through) a breakup, separation, divorce or child custody battle; if your spouse, partner or ex is the jealous, possessive kind; if you are engaged in behaviour or activities that might have your loved ones worried; if your position at a company gives you access to trade secrets or company property; if you’re involved in politics or unions; if you hold public office, occupy a position of authority, or if you have access to information that may be of value to others then you could well be the target of cell phone monitoring.

Can I tell if my phone is bugged?

The truthful answer is that you probably wouldn’t be able to tell unless you were fortunate enough to have had really poor quality or old technology spyware installed on your device. It unlikely that there will be any giveaways such as icons or files with obvious or suspicious names. You may experience certain anomalies or notice that your phone is suddently behaving strangely, but the fact is that these anomalies and behavioural changes don’t necessarily indicate that your phone is being monitored or that spy software has been installed.

Can all cell phones be bugged?

Yes and No. If you’re being targerted by law-enforcement or intelligence services then it would not matter what type of cell phone you use since the interception and monitoring takes place at the network-level. Apart from that, the only ways to monitor a cell phone are using interception hardware (which costs multiple millions of Rand) or spy software. publicly available spy software cannot be used to monitor a non-smart-phone or feature-phone, so you’re only really at risk if you use a smartphone, such as these:

  • Apple iOS – e.g. iPhone, iPad or iPod
  • Android – e.g. Samsung Galaxy, LG Optimus, Sony Xperia, HTC One…
  • Blackberry OS – e.g. Bold, Curve, Torch, Touch, Pearl, Storm, 8000 or 9000 series
  • Symbian S60 or ^3 – e.g. Nokia E-series, N-series, X-series or C-series…
  • Windows Mobile 5, 6, 6.5 and 2003 – HTC, Sony, SonyEricsson, LG, Motorola…
  • Windows Phone 7 and 8 – e.g. Nokia Lumia, Blackberry Q10, Z10, Q5…
  • Meego, Maemo or any Linux distribution

Am I being bugged? Or, am I being Paranoid?

Sometimes I hear echoes or my own voice when I’m on a call

This is almost certainly not an indication that your phone is bugged. All telephone systems deliberately feed a portion of the audio from the mic back into the earpiece to create feedback that is called “side tone”. Its purpose is to help the speaker regulate the volume of their speech. Occasionally, and most often on cellphones, where a signal is being routed through multiple networks and technologies, minute timing differences can occur, and when the “side tone” is not synchronized with the natural feedback you’d hear from your own voice, an echo can be heard. The greater the timing difference, the more noticeable the echo. Cellphone monitoring technologies have no reason to feed any part of the intercepted message back to the intercepted device, so the chances that this is caused by your phone being bugged is between zero and very, very unlikely.

Sometimes I hear crackling, clicking or popping sounds when I’m on a call

Perhaps true in the days of analog telephone systems and mechanical recording devices, but almost certainly not a sign that your cell phone is being bugged. You see, for your cell phone to be bugged, nobody needs to attach any physical device to your phone or to the network – it is all done digitally – and silently. If you do not hear clicking or popping sounds then don’t be fooled into believing that your phone is not being monitored. Likewise, simply because you hear strange sounds it does not mean that you are being monitored. Cell phone technology utilizes radio signals and disturbance from other electrical devices and transmissions can cause various anomalies, including strange sounds and echos.

My phone gets warm after using it

The temperature of any device will naturally increase with usage, and it is not uncommon for a device to feel noticeably warm to the touch after relatively little use or no apparent use at all. The thing to remember is that with most modern cell phones – there are usually numerous applications running in the background (even while the phone is not in use by you) so while you may think the device is inactive, it could be downloading updates or performing “house cleaning” or other administrative functions.

My battery runs down much quicker than it used to

There are a number of reasons why a phone’s battery can run down quickly or suddenly begin to fail. That is the nature of batteries in general, and the primary reason that the battery is normally excluded from the warranty. It is true that with really poorly engineered spy software, especially the old school spy software, one would experience a noticeable decline in battery life. Nowadays this isn’t a reliable indicator that your device is being bugged – especially if it is being bugged by modern, professional spy software that takes stealth and invisibility seriously. If other indicators are also present then this might well be a warning sign.

My phone is sluggish, sometimes unresponsive and restarts itself

Smartphones by their very nature will gradually become more and more sluggish as time goes by. In most cases, this will not be markedly noticeable, but if the phone is regularly used, is running short of storage space or has not been “spring cleaned” in a while then it can become unresponsive and begin to display behavior that one may associate with a bugged device. A cell phone that turns itself off and on by itself is either faulty, requires attention or could have poor quality spy software installed on it. That said, the performance of a phone that is being monitored would be negatively impacted, especially if the spyware is monitoring a number of apps or communication channels at the same time.

Sometimes my phone’s screen lights up by itself

This might be an indication that your phone is being bugged. In spyware apps that offer live listening or “spy call” features, it is common for the app to display the regular screensaver or other standby screen while the active “spy call” is connected. This is done to hide any indication on the screen that a call is connected. If your phone unexpectedly goes into a standby state or the keylock suddenly activates then it may be worthwhile investigating further.

My airtime gets depleted even when I’m not making calls or sending texts

Whether or not you are being monitored, unexplained billing is definitely something you should follow up with your service provider or network operator. Seeing unexplained SMS billing (particularly SMS messages that appear on your detailed billing immediately following events like incoming or outgoing calls) and increased data usage are extremely likely indicators of spy software monitoring. In order for spy software to send the captured data from your phone to the person that is monitoring you it must use some form of communication. Unless there is an unlimited data bundle attached to your phone account you will likely be billed for this communication. Older technology spy software used SMS messages to forward copies of your communications directly to the monitoring person’s device and this is quite easy to spot. Newer technology has enabled spy software to disguise the communications as regular cell phone usage and may be far more difficult to identify. In addition, some spyware will only send data across WiFi so that there are no billing implications.

I get cryptic messages from a person that might be monitoring me

This is a major warning sign of a bugged device. Receiving cryptic SMS text messages from unrecognizable numbers or from a person that might have a reason to want to monitor your device is a huge red flag. SMS commands are usually used to control the target device, to turn features on and off and to change monitoring software settings. Examples of such SMS commands are short four letter commands from one spyware provider (e.g. TBDZ, IRMQ, MCAB), from another provider you can expect commands with brackets and asterisks (e.g. <*30>374372724), and from another are odd keyword commands (e.g. See Ok)

I get calls that connect without ringing

This could well be a sign that you are being monitored. Features like spy call (background listening) and call interception require the monitoring person to dial into the target phone as a regular call in order to listen into background audio or calls in progress. The target phone will recognize the incoming number and connect the call without the target phone ringing or lighting up (in theory). Some spy software products have not really mastered these features and it is not uncommon for the target device to light up, record a log of the missed call or ring briefly before the spy call is connected. If this is a regular occurrence then it is quite possible that you are being monitored.

My phone’s GPS device, camera, or keypad lock regularly turns on by itself

By default, a smartphone is far more likely to automatically turn features off than it is to turn them on. Usually, integrated power saving technologies will shut features like WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS reception off if they’re not being used as these use considerable battery and other phone resources. Although it is possible that legitimate applications could turn such features on without user intervention, it is a high-risk warning sign on most smartphones and in conjunction with other warning signs could suggest that spyware is installed.