Mobile Monitoring: When Do You Need It and Why
Mobile monitoring gives you insights into what’s happening on someone else’s cell phone, which can be useful for a variety of purposes. Employers can use it to track employee activities and make sure they are productive. Parents can keep tabs on their children and protect them from online threats.
On the other hand, mobile monitoring can be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. Hackers may rely on such software to spy on others without consent, extract sensitive data, and then either sell the data or hold it for ransom.
That said, there are several legitimate reasons to use mobile monitoring applications, and that’s what we are going to discuss today. Read on to learn the pros and cons of mobile monitoring, how to install these apps properly, if free tools really work, and how to make the technology worth your time and effort.
What Is Mobile Monitoring?
The technology was developed in the early 2000s when operating systems like Symbian first allowed phones to become “smart.” This meant mobile phones could connect to public networks, paving the way for others to monitor the devices remotely.
FlexiSpy – introduced in 2007 – was among the first mobile monitoring apps in the market. It could extract data such as text messages, addresses from your phonebook, and recordings from the target mobile device.
Over time, competitors like xMobi and others emerged to give users more options for their monitoring needs.
Mobile monitoring apps are also known as parental control software and employee monitoring solutions, depending on the use case. Either way, there’s a target device where the app is installed, the main app interface where you’ll receive the data, and an encrypted connection between the two.
Some mobile monitoring apps need physical access to the target device for installation. Others can be installed remotely by entering certain device credentials into the main interface (e.g., Apple ID details).
Pros and Cons of Mobile Monitoring
Mobile monitoring may involve ethical questions like consent and responsible data usage. That is why the technology has its fair share of pros and cons. Some countries also regulate mobile monitoring to prevent its illegal use, such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) in the US.
It is important to know the pros and cons of mobile monitoring both at an ethical level and at a basic, operational level so you can use it correctly.
- Keep your loved ones safe from online threats
- Block access to inappropriate content and websites
- Optimize the target device so the user can be more productive
- Track the device’s location 24/7
- Get alerts if the device goes outside of a fixed perimeter
- Block unwanted contacts from reaching the device
- Know what the user is typing through keyloggers
- Detect spyware installed on the target device
- Physical access needed for some mobile monitoring apps
- Consent may be legally required under certain conditions
- Not all apps are legit and may infect your systems
- The data collected can be a target for hackers
- Choosing the right app is hard due to limited research and reviews
- The target device needs constant Internet access
Is Mobile Network Monitoring Different from Mobile Monitoring?
Mobile network monitoring is a key concept for app testing. It enables app developers and network operators to make sure that mobile software performs equally well under different network conditions.
Network monitoring helps detect security flaws and other abnormalities in the network itself, and this is usually done without direct access to any device connected to it.
In contrast, mobile monitoring is meant for non-technical users such as parents, family members, managers, and team leaders. The goal is to observe user activity on mobile devices and ensure it conforms to certain rules without getting into the technicalities of the surrounding network conditions.
Here’s a table that sums up the key differences between mobile network monitoring and mobile monitoring:
Key Differences Mobile Network Monitoring Mobile Monitoring Who is it for? Mobile Virtual Network Enablers (MVNE), Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO), telecom carriers, and mobile app developers. Non-technical users who want remote visibility into a cell phone’s activity. How is it done? Network monitoring tools like OpManager or Paessler, load balancers, direct access to router/switch. Mobile monitoring apps like xMobi and mSpy. What does it monitor? Network KPIs like Wi-Fi strength, throughput, network uptime, latency, and connected devices. Sent and received messages, last known location, most frequently contacted number, and more. How many devices can it monitor? The entire network and all devices connected to it. Typically, only one target device can be monitored per app subscription. What access privileges do you need? Admin access to the network. One-time physical access to the target device needed (in some cases).
When Do You Need Mobile Monitoring?
Is it worth the time and effort to install a mobile monitoring app on someone else’s phone and then keep an eye on it constantly?
Fortunately, modern apps make mobile monitoring relatively simple for the end-user when implemented correctly and for the right reasons. Here are some of the most common scenarios where mobile monitoring may be required:
1. Field Service Professionals
Field service professionals such as door-to-door salespeople, technicians, construction workers, truck drivers, and others spend a lot of their time on the road. Employers can keep tabs on their location without calling them frequently, which would disturb their work day.
Mobile monitoring offers a straightforward and effective way to track your on-field workforce remotely. If you haven’t heard from them in a while or you can’t reach an employee on the phone, you know exactly where to send help.
2. Remote Productivity
Remote and hybrid working is now common in most workplaces, and often, employees will work from their mobile phones or laptops. For example, a contact center worker may use a company-provided smartphone to answer customer support calls all day.
But how do you guarantee your employees use these company devices for work and not for other things – say, social media or online shopping? Well, mobile monitoring can give you data on the most frequently used apps.
Combining this data with insights from call center software creates a 360-degree view of your employees are doing during work hours, their performance, and productivity levels.
3. Shadow IT Minimization
You may also need to use mobile monitoring apps where your mobile SaaS sprawl is getting out of hand.
Software as a Service (SaaS) is a type of cloud-based app that’s easy to purchase and use. Employees can sign up for a subscription and expense it to your company like any other business cost.
The subscription may continue for months or years on end without proper control from IT. This is known as SaaS sprawl or shadow IT.
With mobile monitoring, you can identify exactly which apps are installed on an employee’s mobile phone and which ones are actually used. You will also know if different employees are using two different apps for the same reason, forcing your company to pay twice the cost.
4. Cybersecurity and Insider Threat Prevention
An insider threat occurs when an employee shares proprietary information or company secrets on the sly. These typically happen on company-owned devices, including mobile phones, as these are the machines housing your most sensitive and precious information.
You can also monitor device activity using and find out if they are misusing company property or working with the competition.
If an employee is accessing sensitive data from their mobile phone and then sharing it via personal email (which is outside the reach of corporate cybersecurity), a mobile monitoring app will show that too.
5. Cyber Safety for Children
Children’s use of social media has skyrocketed in recent years. Nearly 95% of teens have used YouTube, according to Pew Research Center, two-thirds have used TikTok, and 62% report using Instagram. However, social media isn’t always a safe space for children or even young adults.
The research also found that nearly half of parents with teenage children are highly worried that their kids could be exposed to explicit content on social media. Mobile monitoring is an effective way to keep children safe as they navigate the digital world.
Mobile monitoring apps will show you your children’s conversations on messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram DMs. You can keep an eye on their most frequently contacted online friends and intervene if there’s ever a red flag.
6. Location Tracking for Family Members
This technology can help you track your family members’ location as they go about their daily lives.
Does your spouse have a job that requires them to work in hazardous situations? Is your child going on a road trip for spring break? Are your kids and their friends planning to attend a concert or music festival where their safety might be a concern?
Mobile monitoring can give you peace of mind in such scenarios. In fact, a Wall Street Journal report found that teens and young adults actually want to be tracked when they are driving, going on dates, attending concerts, or participating in large gatherings with strangers.
Mobile monitoring apps come with advanced location-tracking features.
They will reveal the address as well as the full geographic coordinates of the tracked device. As the user moves from one location to another, the app will visually map the full route with near-real-time precision. For instance, xMobi updates the latest known location every five minutes.
7. Remotely Controlling Device Usage Patterns
Parents might want to use mobile monitoring apps when they see their children spending too much time on their mobile phones.
Remember, these apps don’t just give you insights into online activity. They also let you block certain features remotely, such as Wi-Fi access, certain apps, and specific contacts. This means you could remotely switch off the device’s Internet connection when your kids have been on social media for too long.
This is an important use case, given that kids’ screen time has skyrocketed in recent years. A child between 8-10 years of age spends an average of 6 hours in front of a screen, and those between 11 and 14 spend an average of 9 hours, according to CDC research.
A good parental monitoring app will flag such scenarios so you can intervene on time.
8. Lost Phone Security
Lastly, you can use mobile monitoring apps to protect the target device in case it gets lost or stolen. If you’re unable to find your child’s or family member’s mobile phone, the app will show you its most recent location.
In case the device cannot be recovered at all, the app lets you lock it entirely from any remote location.
Keep in mind that Android and iOS offer their own lost device tracking solutions built into the operating system. However, mobile monitoring is still a nice-to-have for your children’s or family member’s phones. For instance, if someone hasn’t turned on the “Find My” setting on their iOS device, a mobile monitoring app will locate it anyway.
Can Phone Manufacturers Monitor Your Device?
Mobile activity monitoring by smartphone manufacturers is a topic of much study and debate. Research shows that nearly every manufacturer monitors your activity to an extent – from Apple to Samsung and Chinese ones like Xioami.
However, certain companies are transparent about their ways and reasons for monitoring since they are operating within the law. In other scenarios, the monitoring data is completely anonymized, so it’s nothing but machine signals. This allows manufacturers to comply with data privacy laws.
In 2021, Apple announced that it would scan iPhones for child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), for which Microsoft is also developing a detection mechanism. It will use an AI-based technology called NeuralHash to distill known CSAM images into a unique number.
If an image on an iPhone user’s device matches the device, Apple will be able to access and analyze the image and plan the next steps with the authorities. Apple assures that this type of monitoring would only pick up CSAM images and nothing else.
Affordable Phones Come at a Privacy Cost
Monitoring efforts by Chinese manufacturers, like Xioami, are less transparent. A former employee found that data on websites visited was routinely collected by Xioami, no matter which browser you used or even if you switched to incognito mode, as per an exclusive published in Forbes.
Xiaomi later added the option to opt out of browser activity tracking in incognito mode.
Research by the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Trinity College Dublin notes that several Android manufacturers, including Realmi, Huawei, Xiaomi, and Samsung, were at risk of secret monitoring.
While they don’t track user behavior, information like the device’s serial number and Wi-Fi address can be monitored.
The bottom line is that it is always possible for smartphone manufacturers to build monitoring capabilities (called backdoors) into their devices. Some of these help test the device and develop effective updates regularly.
But they can also be put to less legitimate use, like spying on people. That is precisely why the US Government has banned approvals for equipment from Huawei Technologies and ZTE since they could be used to spy on Americans.
How to Properly Install Mobile Monitoring Apps
To benefit from mobile monitoring, you need to install and set up the application correctly. Here are the steps to follow:
1. Create Your Account and Obtain Consent
The first step is to register for the mobile monitoring app of your choice. Simply visit the company’s website, enter your email, and purchase a suitable plan. You will receive the installation and setup instructions by email.
Meanwhile, also speak with the owner of the target device and obtain their consent. You need to obtain consent from anyone above 18 years of age, even if they are your children. You can legally skip getting explicit consent if you own your non-adult children’s phones.
Employers can legally monitor what employees do using company-owned devices. However, consent for monitoring should be built into the employment agreement so you don’t infringe on GDPR and other data privacy laws.
2. Turn Off Google Play Protect
Android phones ship with a built-in feature that prevents users from downloading apps that aren’t on the Play Store. This is known as Google Play Protect, and if on, it will block the installation of the mobile monitoring app.
To disable it, open the Play Store, go to the left navigation pane, and tap on Play Protect. Disable it and also switch off any related notifications. You can skip this step on Apple devices since you don’t need to install an app on iPhones to monitor them.
3. Download and Install the App
Open the email you received from the mobile monitoring app provider. You’ll see a download link, which you need to open from a browser on your target device. Once open, it’ll guide you through the installation process. Tap on OK at every step and turn on all the settings as prompted.
4. Configure the Target Device
Next, you need to configure the target device so that it collects and sends all the data you want to monitor.
To do this, go to settings, view all apps, and scroll down to the mobile monitoring app installed on the device. The app may be installed under an innocuous name like “Wi-Fi” or “Video” to escape detection.
Tap on the app and make sure all the permissions are turned on. Background data and unrestricted data usage should be on as well. Remember to turn the notifications off (if they aren’t off already) if the app does not disturb the device user.
Some mobile monitoring apps may ask you to root the Android device before tracking it, but in our experience, this is rarely worth it.
Rooting lets you obtain developer-level control of a device and modify nearly all of its functionalities. This can be achieved through rooting apps like Dr. Fone and OneClickRoot, but remember that most mobile monitoring software works perfectly well without having to root a phone.
5. Log Into the App from Your Interface
Now, you have successfully set up the target device for monitoring. The next step is to log in to your user interface from a mobile app, a desktop app, or a browser. Simply enter your email ID and the credentials you received in step 1 to get started.
The app will prompt you to select exactly which types of activities you want to monitor. It will also ask you to turn on notifications so you can be alerted to important activity updates. You can open the settings on your phone to double-check if everything is working as expected.
Ideally, the app should be able to send you notifications, and it shouldn’t be subject to battery optimization to work properly.
You can now open the dashboard and start viewing the key insights from your target device’s ongoing activities.
How to Monitor Your Kids’ Phones
By following these five steps, you can monitor your kids’ phones from anywhere in the world. Also, remember these useful tips and best practices:
- Invest in a solid Internet plan so that your kids’ phone has connectivity at all times.
- When installing the app on your kids’ phones, make sure to remove all the traces of installation, like browser history and the icon from the app gallery.
- Choose an app from a legitimate provider. Otherwise, it may exploit the data collected.
- Keep a close watch on the dashboard every few hours. Don’t set and forget.
- Use the first few weeks to try out the app and all its functionalities. Some mobile monitoring apps like xMobi offer a refund, so make use of this feature.
- Customize the app for the specific activities you need to monitor. For instance, you may want to monitor your kids’ online classes in addition to social media.
If you find any objectionable activity when monitoring your kids’ phones, it is important to have an honest and transparent discussion about what is and is not permissible.
It’s a good idea to complement mobile monitoring with education on cyber safety topics so that your kids, too, stay vigilant.
Are Free Mobile Monitoring Tools Useful?
Mobile monitoring apps can be either free or paid, and most fall into the latter category. This is because the technology is expensive to build and maintain. The fee you pay goes towards encrypting and securing your data and keeping the entire experience ad-free.
Fortunately, you can find several affordable options in the market, like xMobi, which will cost you approximately $1 per day to use.
When exploring free mobile monitoring tools, look out for a few red flags that may indicate it’s a scam offer:
That said, there are a few free tools that can help you track your kid’s phones to an extent, without the granular details you can receive from a powerful paid app.
Google Family Link is one such option. It lists all your children’s installed apps, the time spent on each, and activity breakdowns for your family’s multiple Android devices. Norton Family Parental Monitoring is another alternative, but it’s free for only 30 days.
Mobile Monitoring – Is It Worth Your Time?
Mobile monitoring can be definitely worth it if you choose the right app and install it correctly. There are plenty of popular parental control apps available today that can help you monitor each and every aspect of your children’s mobile phones.
Benefits include the safety of your loved ones and heightened productivity of employees, in case you’re monitoring your team’s phones. Don’t forget about things like data security, the need for physical access, and obtaining consent, all of which are very important.
As cybercrime becomes increasingly more common and nearly every child has a phone in their hands, mobile monitoring apps can be an invaluable tool for concerned parents. Also, remote and hybrid work makes it necessary to keep a watch on employee activities on mobile devices.
What is a mobile monitoring system?
How can I monitor another phone?
Can free mobile trackers be detected?
What is mobile real-user monitoring?
Can phone manufacturers monitor your mobile?
- An Analysis of Mobile Malware Evolution (Tufts.edu)
- Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, ECPA (Bureau of Justice Assistance)
- Teens and social media: Key findings (Pew Research Center)
- Teens Want Parents to Track Their Phones and Monitor Their Every Move (WSJ)
- Screen Time for Kids; How Much is Too Much? (OSFHealthCare.org)
- Child Safety (Apple)
- Metadata-Based Detection of Child Sexual Abuse Material (Microsoft Research)
- Exclusive Warning Over Chinese Mobile Manufacturers (Forbes)
- Android Mobile OS Snooping By Samsung, Xiaomi, Huawei and Realme Handsets (Trinity College Dublin)
- U.S. Bans New Huawei, ZTE Equipment Sales, Citing National Security Risk (Reuters)
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