Whether it’s a prying boss or a paranoid partner, no one should snoop on your phone or laptop. But that’s exactly what can happen if stalkerware somehow gets installed on your devices. These software tools are designed to be hidden and difficult to detect, but you can find them if you know how to do it.
There’s a wide range of scenarios here, from friends playing pranks to partners being abusive. If you’re in a relationship where you feel trapped and afraid, help is available from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Coalition Against Stalkerware, and many other places—please reach out.
Dealing with programs planted on company-owned devices by your employer is a little different than someone you know personally trying to spy on you. The company you work for may have what it sees as valid reasons to keep tabs on how productive you are, especially if it provides the hardware and software you use every day.
Regardless of whether that kind of monitoring is justified, at the very least your bosses should be telling you they’re watching rather than keeping it a secret from you. Plus, with company-owned phones and laptops, it’s always safer to assume you are being monitored.
This guide focuses on software designed to be hidden—but remember there are plenty of legitimate parental control apps and built-in tracking tools (like Apple’s Find My) that can be used by people in your family or by people who set up your devices. The difference is that it should be obvious if these types of apps are running, but you should still be aware of them and how they can be used.
The good news for iPhone users is that it’s virtually impossible to install stalkerware on an iPhone: Apple’s locked-down approach to apps and app security isn’t always user-friendly, but it’s very effective at keeping you safe. iOS simply doesn’t let apps get deep enough into the system software to be able to secretly monitor what you’re doing on your phone.
There’s one exception to this, and that’s if your iPhone is jailbroken (unlocked so that any apps can be installed). Considering how difficult this is to do nowadays, we’re assuming that isn’t the case—someone else would need to be tech-savvy and borrow your phone for an extended period of time to jailbreak it. The easiest way to check is to look for apps called Cydia and SBSettings on the home screen.
Reduced battery life is one sign that your phone has been compromised.
If you do find yourself with a jailbroken iPhone, a full factory reset should fix it (and wipe everything else, so make sure your important stuff is backed up somewhere). This is best done through a connected Mac or Windows computer, and Apple has a full guide to the process that you can work through here.
Getting sneaky surveillance apps onto Android devices is somewhat easier, though officially speaking they’re not allowed: Google will remove apps from the Play Store if it finds evidence of stalkerware-like behavior. Apps do slip through the net, but someone will need to access your phone (or have to have set up your phone initially) to install one. That’s actually one of the most telling warning signs to look out for: If you set up your own Android phone and no one else has ever had it for more than a few seconds, it should be stalkerware free.
If your phone has been compromised, you might notice it gets hot or the battery drains quickly while you’re not using it. You might also see notifications that you’re not expecting, or shut down or startup times that are longer than they should be. It’s not an exact science—stalking apps are designed to be hard to spot—but any sort of unusual phone behavior could be telling.
Check the apps list to look for anything suspicious.
Monitoring apps will very often hide their app icons but they might show up in the main apps list, albeit under an innocuous, alternative name: From Settings on Android, tap Apps and notifications then See all apps to check. Stalkerware can also be tucked away in the actual Settings menu in Android (often in sections related to security)—look for menu items that don’t look right, or that you haven’t noticed before, or that don’t match the official documentation.
For extra peace of mind, you can enlist the help of a third-party tool: Incognito, Certo, and Kaspersky Antivirus are three phone-scanning apps that come well recommended by their users, and they should tell you if you have anything to worry about. It’s encouraging to note that the issue of secret surveillance apps is now more high profile than ever, and both Google and Apple take a very dim view of any app that attempts anything of the sort.
Most of the same stalkerware-spotting principles for Android and iOS apply for Windows and macOS too. Someone else needs access to your computer for a start, or to trick you into installing something yourself—not difficult for an IT manager who is supplying you with a work laptop, but a bit trickier for someone in your household. As always, keep your laptop or desktop well protected with your own user account and a password, and pay attention to its physical security, like who has access to it and when.
As we’ve said, if your employer is keeping tabs on your working day then the tools should be visible and running with your knowledge. But if you’re really worried, a complete system reset for Windows or macOS should clear the majority of hidden monitoring tools, if you suspect one has taken root (just make sure you back up your files first).
For someone who wants to invade someone’s privacy, it’s often easier just to gain access to their online accounts rather than try to get access to their devices. With just about everything accessible on the web, from social media to email, it’s far more effective.
Facebook will list all of the devices that you’ve logged in on.