Home Spy Apps What Are Spy Apps: How They Work and How to Remove Them in 2024
Aleksandar Stevanovic Senior Writer Author expertise
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What are spy apps? The fact that you’re searching for this answer can mean two things: either you think your device has been compromised, in which case you should definitely read this article, or you’re just really curious about how to secretly track your pet goldfish’s online activities.

Spy apps can come in pretty handy if you want to monitor your kids’ internet pastimes, track suspicious employee activities, trace a partner’s communications to confirm suspicions of infidelity, or protect your device in case it becomes stolen.

On the other side of the spectrum, you may be the victim of a spyware attack, which means your personal and bank details, login credentials, photo galleries, and other documents and files might be in severe danger.

In this article, you’ll find the answer to the question “What are spy apps?”, learn how to use them, and last but not least, learn how to protect your devices from spyware.

What is a Spy App?

  • A spy app is any software that gives you direct access to someone’s device, whether it’s a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. It gathers information from the target device and sends it back to the controlling party.

You can use this tool to monitor your children’s smartphone activities, including their social media usage, browsing history, messages, and calls, to protect them against harmful content.

mSpy dashboard

It’s not unusual for organizations to supervise employee activities on company-provided devices to ensure productivity and protect sensitive information.

Spyware is a type of malicious software (malware) is designed to fetch sensitive information about a person or organization without their consent or knowledge.

Spyware can be injected into your phone, computer,  or mobile device through online or offline cyber attacks. Although most cyberattacks are carried out by cybercriminals and intelligence actors, concerned parents and jealous partner can also install spyware.

It comes in the form of a malware app intended to steal valuable data or as a monitoring tool to track your device’s activities or location.

These snooping software tools can help you deal with a cheating partner and glimpse into their conversations without them knowing. Alas, keep in mind that even regular apps can have a dark side: some apps can secretly take screenshots of your activities and send them to third parties without being categorized as spy apps at all.

How Do Spy Apps Work?

Spy apps are sneaky little things. They are difficult to detect because of their ability to disguise themselves as friendly neighbors while secretly peeping through their curtains, following your every movement.

So, how do spy apps work? Many tracking tools appear as legitimate apps, silently working in the background, which makes them hard to detect. They may use generic names and icons that blend in with other apps or, even crazier, altogether remove their icons from the home screen or app drawer.

Furthermore, many undercover apps consume minimal system resources, maintaining a low impact on the device’s performance. This way, the device user can hardly notice any unusual behavior that might suggest third-party access.

They can request entrance to various functionalities on the target device and collect valuable data, such as:

  • Call logs
  • GPS location
  • Web browsing history
  • Social media activities
  • Text messages
  • Photos and videos

But there’s more. Once you install the app on the target endpoint, you’ll be able to control some of its functionalities. You can lock or unlock the device, capture screenshots, and even record ambient sounds through the smartphone’s microphone.

You can install monitoring apps on the selected gadget either physically or remotely. When it comes to physical access, you’ll need to install the software on the device, which might be challenging if you maintain a long-distance relationship (just saying).

From our experience, remote installation is a far better option in such a scenario, in which case exploring the best phone tracker apps without permission could be a wise idea. Some of these tools boast remote access, meaning you can block incoming calls and messages to the user’s device.

How Does Spyware Get on Your Device

Some spy apps can be installed remotely.

Now that you have an answer to the “What are spy apps?” question, we can continue exploring how they can end up on your device.

The best part, or the worst, depending on your angle of approach, is that monitoring tools can infiltrate a device through various means, which we cover in the sections below. Here’s how spyware gets on your device:

Malicious Websites

Mozilla dangerous website warning One way to infect your device with spy software is by visiting websites hosting malicious content. Naturally, you won’t even know the visited site contains malware, although your browser might alert you and suggest you leave the website because of the potential dangers.

Also, clicking on the pop-us can lead to downloading spyware and comprising your device. Getting the best antivirus software can protect you from such online dangers, so you should consider including an additional security layer for your device(s).

Email Attachments and Phishing Scams

Never open email attachments from unknown or suspicious sources, as it can result in unwanted spyware installation.

Clicking on links in phishing emails can redirect you to fake websites. Most of them appear legit, but in fact, they prompt you to download malicious software.

In the worst-case scenario, in addition to spyware, you can also infect your machine with viruses, ransomware, adware, worms, rootkits, trojans, and many other online threats.

Software Bundling

Beware of free downloads, as some might include spyware attached alongside the selected program or app and installed without your knowledge.

Sometimes, even visiting compromised websites offering free downloads can trigger automatic downloads of spy tools without any user interaction.

Infected USB Drives

Is it really necessary to emphasize not connecting USB devices from unknown individuals, even if they approach you with a sad story about their computer freezing and seeking immediate help from a kind stranger?

Keep in mind that linking infected USB drives or other external storage to your computer can introduce spyware to your system.

Remote Installation

In select cases, attackers can use advanced monitoring tools to gain unauthorized access to your device remotely and deliver spyware to it.

If you read our mSpy review, you already know you don’t need physical access to the device you wish to track since it supports remote cloud installation.

Physical Access

Another way for someone to install spyware on your phone is to gain physical access to your device. This can happen even if you regularly lock your phone with a pin or biometric security. Making your multi-factor protection stronger can make their job harder.

However, the best way to protect your devices from this type of attack is to make sure never to leave your phone unattended, especially in public places like restaurants or during gym workouts.

Bluetooth and WiFi Hacking

Infrastructure of a honeypot-to-go
Credit: Vasilomanolakis et al, 2013

You don’t need to be a world-class cybercriminal to spot and exploit vulnerabilities in Bluetooth or WiFi connections, especially public ones, like your favorite mall or a coffee shop.

Back in the day, hackers used Bluetooth connections to steal data from their victims’ phones through:

  • Bluejacking – sending fake business cards to other Bluetooth devices to establish a connection
  • Bluesnarfing – exploiting open Bluetooth connections to enter victims’ phones and steal private data

Nowadays, hackers use more sophisticated techniques. They create various malicious software, like spyware, disguised as harmless applications. Alas, these apps come with Bluetooth-sharing capabilities, which makes it easier to get Bluetooth permissions from the device. This allows them to transfer spyware to victims’ devices.

Using public WiFi networks is even more dangerous. Public WiFi networks have great coverage and are typically free. And because of that, they’re appealing to many. However, most of these networks lack strong encryption.

This allows hackers to position themselves between your device and the public network you use. This way, they can easily intercept the data flowing between them and steal your logins and personal and bank details.

Another way spyware can get on your device is through malicious hotspots. A hacker creates a fake hotspot with names that appear legit like ‘Free Airport WiFi’ or ‘Starbucks WiFi’. Once a victim connects to a ‘free WiFi,’ they unknowingly expose their device to spyware.

Jealous Partners or Friends

Your friend or partner might turn into a phone-unlocking acrobat—all it takes for you to leave your phone unattended in your home while showering.

Your suspicious partner can quickly navigate the settings, disable security features, and install a spy app, all in under 10 minutes. That is if they know the passcode for unlocking your smartphone.

Law Enforcement

In case you suspect that someone from law enforcement is tracking your phone, it might be wise to use another device to look for information on what are spy apps exactly and what they can do.

Law enforcement agencies sometimes use surveillance technology, including monitoring apps and software, as part of their investigative tools to gather evidence on criminal activities or to look for suspects.

The good news is that the use of such technology is heavily regulated and typically requires judicial oversight.

Concerned Parents

A million-dollar question or, thanks to phone spyware tools, roughly around a dozen dollars per month is: how do you keep your kids safe against inappropriate online content, cyberbullying, and online predators?

Well, one way is to hope you have an honest relationship with your kids, which means you’ll know everything about their whereabouts. The other, probably more reliable, is to install a tracking app on their phone.

The best part about these spy tools is that they often go beyond mere spying, offering features to block inappropriate websites or apps, set screen time limits for your kids, or enable geofenced areas that alert concerned parents when the child enters or leaves a specific location.

mSpy's content filtering feature

Although this approach may seem unethical, and even illegal in certain instances, parenting experts recommend having open discussions with children about using such apps, explaining why they are being used, and setting clear expectations.

But, even if you don’t, it’s good to know that your kids will hardly even know there’s a tracking app on their phone, just in case you want to leave this part out of family discussions.

Key Features of Spy Apps

Most experts focus on their core functionalities like monitoring children’s online activities or spying on your spouse’s social media, text messages, and conversations. When we first started researching monitoring tools, these were indeed their main selling points.

mSpy's browser history feature

Modern multi-tool apps like mSpy offer a wide range of functionalities, allowing you to gather various kinds of information depending on your needs.

Here’s what you can expect:

Keyloggers

Enabling this feature in the surveillance app settings allows the software to track every keystroke on the target device. Using this functionality, you can reveal anything that the device user types on a keyboard, both physical and virtual, such as:

  • Passwords
  • Messages
  • Search History

mSpy's keylogger feature

Many spy apps can record the keystrokes or take screenshots at regular intervals.

Monitoring Emails

Another admittedly popular functionality is tracking a user’s email account and monitoring incoming and outgoing messages.

A surveillance app typically copies these emails and returns them to your device. However, some software solutions may copy messages to a remote server.

Productivity Tracking

You don’t necessarily have to use these apps to track kids and spouses. Companies use a variety of features from spy apps, though they often call them employee monitoring software or productivity tracking tools, to gauge how their employees are working.

This allows supervisors to see which applications or websites employees use and for how long, helping them identify if employees spend much of their work time on social media or unrelated websites.

Some monitoring software tracks overall computer activity. For example, tracking mouse movements can tell whether your employee is engaged in work.

These tools can also capture screenshots at regular intervals, giving supervisors a more visual picture of what the employee is working on.

Audio Recording

Those interested in discovering what and with whom their kids are speaking late at night can use these handy tools to secretly record conversations, ambient noise, or even voice notes through the device’s microphone.

Browsing History

If you’re curious to find out what websites your children visit, are concerned about your partner’s online behavior, or want to ensure your company resources are used appropriately by your employees, the Browsing History feature in spy apps can deliver all the information you need.

Geo-fencing and Location Tracking

Geo-fencing apps are great if you want to learn more about your kids’ whereabouts. You can install the software on their phone and set an alert to receive a notification every time they enter or leave predetermined locations.

mSpy's geofencing feature

Needless to say, these tools are great at determining the exact location of the tracked device. For example, you can install a tracking app on your boyfriend’s phone and get his precise location on a digital map.

This way, you can always know whether your boyfriend is really attending the “National Association of Sock Puppet Enthusiasts.”

Social Media Monitoring

Many spy apps offer the ability to track social network activities. Using surveillance software, you can get insight into every single conversation that is happening on the communication channels installed on the device of your interest, such as:

  • WhatsApp
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Tinder
  • Snapchat
  • Telegram and more

mSpy's social messaging tracking

When it comes to functionality, the good news is that you’ll be spoilt for choice. You can get alerts if the phone user types certain words, monitor their call log activities, access media libraries, including videos, photos and documents, and much more.

Remote Control

Some advanced spy apps may also offer remote control features, allowing you to execute certain actions on the target device from a distance. These remote control capabilities might include:

  • Taking screenshots
  • Recording the screen
  • Capturing photos or videos using the device’s camera
  • Sending texts or making calls
  • Blocking access to specific apps or websites
  • Remotely locking or wiping the device

How to Detect and Remove Spy Apps?

If you notice your device is acting strange, or at least stranger than before, there’s a chance your machine was compromised. Still, even if that’s the case, there’s no reason to stress about it.

Removing spy apps can vary depending on your device. The process might differ slightly depending on whether you use a smartphone or computer and the specific operating system (Android, iOS, Windows, or Mac).

Don’t worry, though! Our step-by-step guide will cover everything you need to know to remove these unwanted programs from any device. But before that, let’s see how to find hidden spy apps and what are the common signs:

  • Device running slower
  • The device crashes regularly
  • Pop-up ads appearing
  • The device is running out of memory space
  • Unexplained battery drain
  • Unknown apps or browser extensions
  • Difficulty shutting down or restarting your phone/computer
  • Changes to your internet browser settings
  • Increased data usage

If you notice just one of these symptoms, you’re less likely to be a victim of a spyware attack. However, if you mark at least two, then it would be wise to consider some of the following fixes to stop or detect a spy app on your device:

  • Disconnect your device from the internet
  • Check the device’s current apps (task manager, activity center, etc.)
  • Install an antivirus
  • Download a virus removal tool or the best spyware detectors
  • Boot into Safe Mode
  • Backup your data
  • Update your operating system
  • Factory reset your device to delete all apps

If none of these work or, at least, you think your device contains a monitoring app despite taking all the steps listed above, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get rid of tracking software depending on your device and operating system.

How to Remove Spy Apps from a Computer?

Although removing computer spyware from Windows and Mac OS slightly differs, the principle remains the same. Here’s how to do it:

Windows and Mac:

1. Run a Full Scan

Depending on your OS, you can scan your system for spyware with Windows Defender or Malwarebytes Scan. This can give you a rough picture of whether your computer is compromised.

Run a full scan on Windows Defender

2. Use a Standalone Antivirus

As the famous saying goes, two heads are better than one. No antivirus solution is perfect. Our recommendation is always to double-check, i.e. install a dedicated antivirus for your computer.

TotalAV Antivirus Software

Get one of the best antivirus software for Windows or Mac and install it. Once you do that, disconnect your computer from the internet and run another full scan.

3. Check for Suspicious Activities

With no desire to rain on your parade; however, even the best antivirus for Mac can not guarantee 100% success. This means there’s a slim chance you still have spyware somewhere on your computer.

The best way to find it is to open the Task Manager on your device and look for suspicious apps. Remember that spy apps are great at disguising themselves, meaning they’ll never consume more than 5% of your CPU.

From our experience, you should look for tasks that operate below the 5% benchmark. Once you find them, end unfamiliar or suspicious tasks and try to uninstall them from your computer.

4. Uninstall Unknown Programs

Go to ‘Search Bar’ and type ‘Add or remove programs’. From there, you need to look for unknown programs and uninstall them from your system.

Also, it would be a good idea to delete suspicious browser extensions. For Mac users, resetting the Safari browser should do the trick.

5. Consider Reinstalling the OS

If none of these options work, or you still believe your device is infected, regardless of the scan results, you can always reinstall your operating system. This will delete all apps and programs from your computer, including the (possible) spyware.

How to Remove Monitoring Software from a Smartphone?

Here’s how to remove phone spy software from iOS and Android phones:

Android & iOS:

1. Update your Android/iOS software

First, you should update the phone’s software. Spyware typically exploits vulnerabilities in the smartphone operating system. Keeping your phone out of date only helps malware sneak through the device’s defenses. Android phone update in progress

 

Software updates include security patches necessary to safeguard against malware attacks. They also give you more control over ‘Permissions Management’ functions, making it harder for malicious apps to access sensitive data on your phone.

2. Look for Suspicious Apps

Go to your phone’s file manager and look for suspicious or unfamiliar apps. Uninstall or delete apps that don’t appear legitimate.

3. Use Permission Manager

Visit the Permission Manager and look for apps that have permission to enter your:

  • Camera
  • Microphone
  • Gallery
  • Email

Use admin permissions to restrict access, and don’t hesitate to delete apps that have permissions they shouldn’t have.

4. Perform a Deep Scan

Scanning your device with the best antivirus for Android or Mac is always a good idea. Even if you don’t suspect you have spyware on your phone, it’s worthwhile to perform a scan from time to time, even if you think you’re safe.

5. Factory Reset

Finally, if you strongly suspect spyware, you can factory reset your device as a last resort.

Factory reset Android device

However, this will delete everything, so be sure to back up your data first.

What Are Spy Apps Takeaways

Spy apps are handy tools for tracking someone’s online activities, whereabouts, conversations, and social media without their knowledge. These software solutions also allow you to take partial or complete control over the target device and take screenshots and keylogs.

Monitoring applications are great if you’re a concerned parent looking to protect your children from cyberbullying, harmful content, or online predators. In addition, they could also prove the suspicions of your partner’s infidelity and capture their movements.

If you notice your device is slower than usual, occasionally has annoying pop-ups, its battery lasts shorter than it’s supposed to, or suddenly has no memory space, then your device may contain spyware.

The best way to remove a spy app from your device is to download a compatible antivirus, check for suspicious and unknown apps, and remove permissions or delete them entirely from your system. If that doesn’t work, factory reset or reinstall your computer OS – this should do the trick.

Now that you know what spy apps are question, you can make informed decisions about their use and be prepared to remove them if necessary.

FAQs

What is a spy app?

Are spy apps legal?

How do spy apps work on mobile?

Can spy apps show WhatsApp messages?

Can someone track my location using a spy app?

References

 

Aleksandar Stevanovic Senior Writer

Aleksandar Stevanovic Senior Writer

Aleksandar is a senior content writer with a passion for consistently writing in-depth articles on software-related topics, including Antivirus Software, VPNs, VoIP, CRM, Spy Apps, and Crypto.

Aleksandar has worked with reputable websites such as CEX.IO and NicheStack, further showcasing his commitment to providing high-quality content.

With nearly a decade of experience, he delivers valuable and well-researched pieces to his readers, establishing himself as a reliable authority in the industry.

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