The recent hacking of Italian spyware outfit Hacking Team reminds us all that we may well have spyware on our phones.

In one of the leaked documents, called Fighting Crime Now, Hacking Team boasts of how it can plant an agent on a target’s mobile phone, circumvent encryption, and essentially see what the target sees.

In another document it says rather grandiosely that its smartphone ‘agent’ is undetectable by antivirus software. The company says its agent is planted on the target’s device when a document is opened or a website is visited. It can also be delivered via a SMS, QR code or web link.

Hacking Team isn’t alone, either; there are hundreds of different cell phone spy programs available. Cell phone spying software can allow a snooper to listen in on a live phone call, remotely record all phone calls made to or from the target phone, record surroundings, take control of the phone’s camera remotely, and in some cases see all passwords entered into the phone such as social messaging, emails and applications.

Tell-tale signs you’re being bugged

But you can protect yourself. Just exactly how to do it depends on how you have been bugged. For instance, some spyware is loaded onto the phone physically, it could be a paranoid boss handing out company phones, while others like the Hacking Team tools, are inserted using methods traditionally associated with desktop hacking like malicious website links or phishing.

It’s sometimes possible to detect whether a phone is loaded with spyware. The list below details some tell-tale signs, but these indicators often apply to spyware programs that are ‘buggy’ or not of a high standard. The more sophisticated spyware is designed to hide its presence. That said, if your phone displays a combination of the signs below, it might be safe to assume that you’ve got some type of spyware on your device.

  • If your phone suddenly lights up when not in use, makes random noises, or shuts down by itself, and it happens regularly, it could be symptomatic of it being accessed by spy software.
  • If you get lots of background noise such as static, clicking, beeping, or voices in the background, your phone could be bugged.  Some spy listening features can cause background noise as they ‘dial-in’ to listen to conversations.
  • Do you receive strange text messages containing random numbers, symbols, or characters? The remote control feature of spy software works by sending secret coded text messages to your phone. If the software is not working properly, sometimes these coded texts can be seen.
  • If you see any sudden changes in your battery life and need to charge it more often than usual, this could also be a give-away sign.  That said, the modern spy programs are designed to make less demand on the battery.
  • Another sign could be increased data usage. Some spy apps use extra data to send information collected from your phone, so it can pay to look out for any unexplained increase in monthly data usage.

How to protect yourself

If you have discovered monitoring or tracking software on your smartphone, there are a few ways to remove it:

Restore settings. Restoring your phone to its factory settings will remove any spy software. This basically wipes your phone clean so it’s just like the day you bought it. But keep in mind that you’ll need to back up all of your data before restoring it. The act of restoring your phone is simple — you just need to look in the settings section to find the ‘restore’ or ‘reset’ options. If you’re uncertain, check the phone manufacturer’s support web site for instructions. Also, don’t set apps to restore automatically as you may end up reinstalling the spy software.

Update operating system. Some spy programs use operating system vulnerabilities that have not been patched. So make sure to apply operating system updates to patch up the leaky holes.

Remove spy apps manually. Cell phone spyware can be removed manually by going into the phone’s file system and deleting the software program files. However, without technical knowledge, this can be difficult. For instance, without knowing specifically what you are looking for, you may inadvertently remove files that make the phone work properly.

Avoid open Wi-Fi and unknown links. Be wary of unsolicited email attachments, links you receive that you never asked for, and public, open Wi-Fi connections. All of these can be used to install spyware on your device, so avoid public connections and never click on a link or open an email attachment if you don’t know the source or aren’t expecting the link or document.

Take out your battery. This works like a treat — simply take out the phone’s battery when you’re not using it. Your phone will be dead, but it won’t be transmitting data or even your location. And there’s nothing more frustrating for the snooper than knowing you’ve disappeared off the radar.

Remove the jailbreak on your iPhone. For spyware programs to work on an iPhone, the phone must be jailbroken. If the jailbreak is removed, the software will be removed. You can remove the jailbreak by updating the operating system. However, when you do the update, any other non-Apple apps will also be removed.

Globally there has been phenomenal growth in surveillance software that targets mobile phones. The Hacking Team has been roundly condemned for selling its snooping technology to countries that have dubious human rights records. But just as alarming is the fact that it’s done big business with a large number of democratic nations.

Still, by looking out for some of the tell take signs and doing simple factory resets and running antivirus software, you can stay clear of spyware.

Steve Bell is resident IT security analyst at BullGuard. He has worked as journalist and writer for UK press and technology companies, including The Guardian, The Times, Independent on Sunday, Microsoft and Cisco, for over 20 years.