Stalkerware on Android: this is how you recognize and remove spying apps

Whether it’s your curious employer or paranoid partner, no one should be watching your smartphone. Yet that is exactly what happens when it is stalkerware on your Android smartphone. That’s how you get rid of it.

The ‘virus’ opens the front door of your device, as it were so that others can see what is happening indoors. For example, they can read along with your messages, view the camera roll, secretly turn on the camera or check who you chat with on Tinder.

The most obvious is love. Research by RTL Nieuws shows that thousands of Dutch people are secretly being watched by their (ex-) lover.

Not only (former) partners hack smartphones with stalkerware. It also occurs in the work sphere, for example, although the situation is a bit more nuanced here. Some employers may have very legitimate reasons to (be able to) monitor what you do on your smartphone. It is true that your work should of course inform you about this: stalking is illegal, even when it takes place via your smartphone.

How does stalkerware end up on my smartphone?

Now that we know what stalkerware is, we can look at its origin. How do spying apps end up on your smartphone?

In the majority of cases, the spy software is manually placed on the victim’s phone. This happens, for example, if the partner is taking a shower and the unlocked phone of that person is unattended on the kitchen table. The stalking partner then has free rein and installs an app that secretly forwards data.

Stalkerware can also be installed remotely. For example, the victim receives a text message asking if he/she wants to install a new app or if he/she needs to fill in additional information. This app then opens the door a crack so that the person behind the stalkerware app can watch.

Is stalkerware illegal?

The reality is – as is often the case – a bit more complex than that.

The apps that spies use are not necessarily against the law. For example, makers of stalkerware apps target parents of young children. With these kinds of applications, they can keep a digital eye on things. The example of employers mentioned above also falls under this (legitimate) category.

That said, stalking is obviously very wrong. It is illegal to secretly monitor someone, even when done digitally. The presence of stalkerware is therefore presented as incriminating evidence in many lawsuits. Stalkerware apps are therefore inherently wrong if the ‘carrier’ does not know that he or she is being followed.

Recognizing stalkerware

Strangely enough, it is often difficult for victims of stalkerware to recognize these types of apps. They have very neutral names and therefore do not stand out in the list of apps.

It becomes very difficult to recognize stalkerware when the (Android) app is linked to a computer version. Then the spy gets more options at her/his disposal, such as being able to reset a phone remotely.

So, how can you spot stalkerware? Good stalkerware apps are masters of camouflage and do everything they can to avoid being discovered.

The most important tip is therefore to use your eyes and ears well: is your phone behaving differently than usual? If so, then there may be something wrong. You can pay attention to the following things, among others:

  • Does your smartphone suddenly become very hot, or does the battery run out much faster than normal?
  • Is your Android smartphone’s Play Protect virus scanner turned off? You can check this through the Google Play Store app. Tap your profile icon at the top right and go to ‘Play Protect’.
  • Does your phone behave strangely after being out of your sight for a while? Maybe the stalker set up a spy app there.
  • Do you suddenly receive all kinds of strange notifications from apps, or do unknown apps ask for all kinds of additional permissions? Then watch out.
  • View the list of apps that are on your phone. Do you come across strange applications for you here? Then google the name of this app. When it comes to stalkerware, you’ll find out soon enough.

Remove Stalkerware

Removing stalkerware on Android phones is easier said than done. Sure, you can uninstall the spying app, but that doesn’t solve the problem. The ‘owner’ of the stalkerware app knows (in many cases) that you have uninstalled the program in question.

Experts, therefore, point to an alternative course of action. According to SafetyNed, an organization that helps victims of digital domestic violence, it’s wise to find a “safe channel” before removing stalkerware.

‘For example, buy a cheap phone for calling and texting, and confide in a friend,’ says SafetyNed. ‘Then seek professional help, for example through us, to map out the risks of your situation.’

You can use these apps

Is the situation clear and safe? Then you can uninstall the stalkerware app(s). For example, use an antivirus app for this. These programs recognize many stalkerware apps and can also remove them. Good examples of antivirus apps for Android are Kaspersky, Bitdefender, and Norton Mobile.

Can’t you just remove the stalking software? Then you can also restore the factory settings of your smartphone. 

Some stalkerware is so persistent that even a factory reset won’t work. In that case, it is best to buy a completely new phone. When you buy a fresh device from a well-known (web) store, the chance is really nil that it has been tampered with.

Safe handling of your Android phone

On Android Planet we regularly pay attention to the dark side of smartphones and technology. For example, read our explainer articles about malware, ransomware and other Android viruses.

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