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What Are Spy Apps and How Do They Work?

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In this article we explore cell phone spy apps, what they are, how they work, and how they are used to track someone’s smartphone activity.

Spying apps are designed to give parents a discrete way to monitor the phone of a child. But they can be used to monitor any iOS or Android-based smartphone.

These apps run in the background on a phone and cannot be detected by users.

What Are Smartphone Spy Apps?

A spy app is surveillance software designed to track and monitor activity on iOS and Android-based smartphones. Spy apps are used to monitor the device of a child, employee, spouse, or partner.

Phone monitoring apps track a wide range of data from the target device. This includes social media activity, GPS location, SMS text messages, iMessages, website browsing history, incoming and outgoing phone calls, chat and dating apps, and more.

What Are the Types of Spy Apps?

The two types of spy apps are for smartphones that use Apple’s iOS operating system and Google’s Android operating system.

Spying apps are also available for computers running both Windows and Mac operating systems.

What Are Some Examples of Spy Apps?

The following list contains examples of cell phone spying apps.

  1. uMobix
  2. mSpy
  3. FlexiSPY
  4. iKeyMonitor
  5. Cocospy
  6. Spyic
  7. Eyezy
  8. Highster Mobile
  9. WebWatcher
  10. Auto Forward
  11. Spyera
  12. SpyHuman

What Are the Benefits of Spying Apps?

The benefits of spy software are:

  1. allowing parents to monitor a child’s location.
  2. protecting children from cyberbullying and online predators.
  3. tracking the location of employees.
  4. monitor employee’s phone usage during work hours.
  5. track family members to ensure they are safe.

Why Do People Use Spy Apps?

Spy apps have many uses. Spying apps are designed for parents who want to monitor the phone or computer of a child, but can be used to track anyone.

Parental monitoring

The most common reason to use a spy app is to track a child’s smartphone usage. They allow a parent to track their child’s location, what apps the child uses, who they chat with, and even if the child is being bullied in school.

Some apps offer even more parental monitoring features like:

  • monitoring screen time
  • internet browsing history
  • Youtube videos they watch
  • time restrictions
  • remote locking of the device

Monitoring an Employee’s Phone

Another common use of spy apps is to monitor and track an employee’s phone usage and productivity. Cell phone spying apps allows employers to ensure that company phones are only being used for activities that are work-related.

They can also be used to monitor employee communication with customers via text messages or phone calls.

Spying on a Spouse

Phone spy software is often used to spy on a spouse who is suspected of cheating. A husband or wife can monitor their spouse’s phone for secret messaging apps or dating apps. They can even use the GPS tracking feature to see their spouse’s location.

A recent study showed that 1 in 10 people snoop on a current or former partner.

What Phone Models Can Spy Apps Be Used On?

Spy software compatibility varies per app. Most apps are compatible with any iPhone running any version of iOS.

Android spy software is compatible with the following phones:

  1. Google Pixel
  2. Samsung Galaxy, Galaxy Flip, and Galaxy Fold
  3. All LG Android models
  4. All Nokia Android models

Blackberry phones are NOT supported.

When Were Spy Apps Invented?

Spy apps were invented shortly after smartphones became commonly used. FlexiSPY is one of the oldest spy apps. It became commercially available in 2004. In 2010, mSpy introduced more user-friendly spy software. This made it possible for less technically proficient people to track and monitor a smartphone.

Who Uses Phone Spying Apps?

Spying apps are most commonly used by parents and employers. These apps help ensure that the phone is being used appropriately.

Spouses and partners make up another large segment of spy app users. In these cases, monitoring apps are used when a partner or spouse is suspected of infidelity.

What Are the Features of Spy Apps?

Spy app features vary depending on the operating system of the device, whether the app has root access (more below), and the quality of the spying app itself.

Most spy apps do not require jailbreaking or rooting the target smartphone.

Below is a comprehensive list of spying features with a detailed explanation of how each feature is used.

Features That Do Not Require Jailbreaking or Rooting

The following features are available using spy software that does not require root access to the device. These apps must work within the security parameters set forth by Microsoft (Windows), Google (Android devices), and Apple (iOS & Mac devices).

Monitor Social Media Platforms & Messaging Apps

Tracking social media activity is one of the most important features of a spying app. Below we break down the social media platforms that can be monitored on Android and iOS phones.

Social Media & Chat App Tracking Features on Android

Below are the social media and messaging apps that can be tracked on an Android without rooting the device.

  • Snapchat
  • Facebook
  • Facebook Messenger
  • Instagram
  • Tinder
  • TikTok
  • WhatsApp
  • Facebook Messenger
  • KIK
  • Zoom
  • Hangouts
  • Skype
  • Telegram
  • Line
  • Viber
Social Media & Messaging App Tracking Features on iOS

Below are all of the social media and messaging apps that can be tracked on an iOS device.

  • Facebook Messenger
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • WhatsApp
  • Skype

iOS based spy software cannot monitor Snapchat, Tinder, Line, TikTok, or KIK.

Track GPS Location

A good spy app tracks the current GPS location of the device you’re monitoring. Many phone tracker apps only provide you with this information every few hours. If you need more frequent updates make sure your app offers real-time location tracking.

The GPS location tracking feature can be used to find a lost phone, or to find the location of a child, employee, or spouse.


Geofencing is an advanced GPS tracking feature. Geofencing apps allow you to create zones on a map. When the target phone enters or leaves one of these zones you receive a notification.

This feature can be used to ensure your child makes it safely home from school. It can also be used to ensure they don’t stray too far from home.

Monitor Text Messages

People send text messages for all sorts of reasons. Any great app has the ability to hack someone’s text messages. SMS text messages can be monitored on mobile phones without the need to root (Android) or jailbreak (iPhone & iOS devices).

Phone Contacts List

One of the more common features of a spy phone app is the ability to see the contacts list of the target person. This will show you phone numbers, email address, and more for each contact. Even a budget option will include this functionality.

See Web Browser History

Web browser tracking gives you insight into what websites someone is viewing on their phone. Most cell phone monitoring apps offer this feature. The internet browsing history function is a great feature for employee monitoring. Some apps can monitor a phone’s Incognito history.

SIM Card Notifications

Some apps stop working if the SIM card of the device is changed. The spyware apps listed above will notify you of any SIM card changes.

Reading Emails

Most monitoring software will allow you to read emails from the target device. Some apps even allow you to see email’s from the target phone’s Gmail account.

Viewing Call Logs

The call logs feature displays all incoming and outgoing calls. It includes timestamp, phone numbers, and duration of the call.

Camera Control

The camera control feature allows you to remotely turn on the phone’s camera to take pictures or record videos. These videos can then be viewed from you online control panel.

Keystroke Logging

A keystroke logging feature captures anything that is typed on the phone keyboard. This includes chats, texts, emails, usernames, and passwords. Some trackers will even notify you when specific keywords are typed.

The keylogging function will even let you see search engine queries.

Custom Alerts

Alerts allow you to monitor even when you’re busy. Alerts can be setup to tell you when the phone enters restricted areas, or when certain words are typed.

Features That Require Jailbreaking or Rooting

The features below are common to cell phone spy apps that require root access to the device. These apps can bypass the security parameters set forth by Microsoft (Windows), Google (Android devices), and Apple (iOS & Mac devices).

Recording Phone Calls

More advanced phone surveillance software can directly access phone calls. This includes intercepting live calls and recording phone calls.

Recording In-App Calls

Apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Line, Viber, Skype, FaceTime, and WeChat offer in-app calling. Spying apps with root access to the device can record these calls.

Spoof SMS Messages

Spying apps with root access offer the ability to spoof SMS messages. This means a text message can be sent on behalf of the phone’s owner.

How Do Spy Apps Work?

Cell phone spy apps (also known as spyware or surveillance software) work by uploading data from the target device to a remote server. Most apps utilize a secure sockets layer (SSL) connection to protect sensitive personal data.

Once the phone data is transferred to the server, it can be viewed through a web-based dashboard.

Surveillance apps function slightly differently depending on the operating system of the target device, and whether or not the app has root access. Let’s take a look at how spying apps work on iOS and Android devices.

How Spy Apps Operate On iOS Devices

iPhone spy software works in two different ways. One method accesses target phone data through the device’s iCloud account. The second method requires jailbreaking the phone and installing the software on the phone itself.

iOS Devices No-Jailbreak

Most iPhone spy software does not require jailbreaking the device. These apps work by downloading phone backups from the target user’s iCloud account.

This method is the easiest and most convenient way to monitor an iOS device because it requires little to no access to the target phone.

Requirements of No-Jailbreak Spying Apps

Below are the requirements of no-jailbreak spying apps.

  • user’s iCloud username and password
  • iCloud backups must be enabled on the target device
  • brief access to the device if 2-factor authentication is enabled

After logging into the target user’s iCloud account, the spy app downloads all of the backup data from the iCloud account and stores it on a server.

The purchaser of the spy app can then view this phone data from an online control panel.

Benefits of The No-Jailbreak Method

The benefits of spying apps that do not require jailbreaking include:

  1. does not require installation of software on the target iPhone
  2. monitoring is unaffected by iOS updates or factory reset
  3. only requires access to target device for 2-factor authentication code
Disadvantages of The No-Jailbreak Method

The disadvantages of spying apps that do not require jailbreaking include:

  1. access to fewer social media and chat apps (no Snapchat or Tinder)
  2. cannot listen to or record phone calls

Jailbroken iOS Devices

Jailbreaking an iPhone disables most of the phones built-in security. This allows apps to access more information on the device. Apple is very strict in controlling what information apps can access. The jailbreak process bypasses these restrictions.

Benefits of Jailbreaking

Jailbreaking the target iPhone facilitates the tracking of more data from social media platforms, dating apps, chat apps, and phone calls.

Disadvantages of Jailbreaking

There are disadvantages to jailbreaking an iOS device.

  1. jailbreaking an iOS device can be complicated.
  2. the installation process requires physical access to the target device.
  3. jailbreaking voids the warranty of the device.

How Spy Apps Function on Android Devices

Android phone’s don’t back up to a cloud account. An Android spy app must be installed directly on the target device. The app then sends data to a server for storage and viewing.

Because the Android operating system sees surveillance apps as a threat, the security settings of the device must be changed during the setup process.

How Do Spying Apps Transmit Data?

Spy software utilizes the target device’s cellular data or WiFi internet connection to send and receive information. If the phone has no internet connection or is in “dead zone“, transmission of data is delayed until the internet connection is restored.

Can Data Transmission Methods be Changed?

It is possible to change the method of data transmission in the online control panel of the spying app. In the settings menu, users can choose to send all data over cellular and Wifi. They can also choose to transmit media files, like photos and videos, over WiFi only.

How Are Smartphone Spy Apps Installed?

The installation process for spying apps is relatively straightforward. It differs depending on the operating system of the phone. Below is a brief explanation of how to install spyware on an Android and iOS device.

Installation Process for Android Devices

Android spy software must be installed directly on the target device. This requires physical access to the phone and the user’s passcode.

The installation process for Android devices is as follows:

  1. Sign up for an account with a spy app company.
  2. Choose your subscription plan and pay.
  3. Change the necessary security settings on the target phone per the emailed instructions.
  4. Download the spyware software onto the target device.

Installation Process for iOS Devices

iOS-based spying apps are not installed directly on the target phone. These apps operate by downloading data from phone backups in the user’s iCloud account.

The installation process for iOS devices is as follows:

  1. Sign up for an account with a spy app company.
  2. Choose your subscription plan and pay.
  3. Enter the user’s iCloud email address and password in your account dashboard.
  4. Enter the 2 factor authentication code that is sent to the target phone.

How Do You Use Phone Surveillance Apps?

highster online control panel

Phone surveillance apps are used by logging into an online control panel. Here you’ll see all the information from the target phone. Phone calls, text messages (even those that have been deleted), photos and videos, web browsing history, and more.

You’ll also be able to see the physical location of the phone on a map. Some apps also incorporate a location timeline so you can track where the phone has been over the past 24 hours. You can also set up geo-fencing which notifies you when the phone enters or leaves certain areas on a map.

Other features you can access from your control panel include:

  • view and download photos and videos
  • store messages and phone logs
  • taking a picture with the phones’s camera
  • ambient listening to hear what’s happening around the phone
  • locking and unlocking the phone
  • view all phone activity and location information
  • adjust the data update frequency
  • enable text updates via cellular or WiFi connection
  • enable media updates via cellular or WiFi connection
  • disable or enable phone functions

Spy Apps vs Spyware

Surveillance apps are often referred to as spyware, but there are significant differences between the two types of software. The main difference between spyware and spy software is the number of users targeted, and the method of installation.

Spyware apps, also known as adware, are typically installed during the installation of another app or software. In most cases this is done without notifying the user. This software then sends personal information back to the spyware developer.

This information is then sold to companies that use it for advertising or marketing purposes.

This includes all or more of the following information about the user.

  • website browsing history
  • demographic information
  • personal interests
  • social media platform usage

More malicious spyware will capture email addresses, credit card numbers, usernames, and passwords.

Spy software is designed to target one user. A spying app is installed by someone who wants to monitor the activities of another person. This data is not shared with anyone except the person who installed the spying app.

Examples include a parent that wants to monitor a child, or an employer that needs to track the phone usage of an employee.

Spy Apps vs Parental Control Apps

The main difference between spy apps and parental control apps are the features designed to limit what can be accessed from the phone. Parental monitoring apps allow parents to limit screen time, block and filter websites, and limit Youtube content. Most spying apps do not offer these features.

Spy Apps vs Stalkerware

There is no difference between spy apps and stalkerware. Stalkerware is a synonym for spy app. It derives its’ name from the fact that stalkers use these apps to “stalk” their victims.

Is Stalkerware Malware?

Stalkerware is a form of malware that allows a stalker to spy on the phone of another person. Most of these apps will be identified by the phone’s operating system as malware.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are Spy Apps Disguised As?

Spying apps are disguised to look like legitimate apps or services on the target device. Some examples include “Play Services”, “SyncManager”, and “Update Service”.

How Does Spy Software Track a Phone’s Physical Location?

Spy software uses several common technologies to track the location of a phone. These include cell tower triangulation, GPS signals, and nearby WiFi networks.

Can Spy Apps Work Without Internet Access?

Yes, spy apps can work without Internet access by using the SMS communications channel on a cell phone.

Smartphone surveillance software can also be programmed to wait until your cell signal or Wi-Fi connection is restored to send data.

Will Spy Apps Work If the Target Phone is Turned Off?

Some spy functions will work even if the target phone is turned off. iOS-based surveillance software monitors iCloud backups. Any data uploaded to this cloud account is accessible.

Android surveillance software cannot transmit data while the phone is off. It will transmit once the phone is turned back on.

What Are Other Names for Spy Apps?

Below are some alternative names for smartphone spy apps:

  • phone spyware
  • spying apps
  • phone surveillance apps
  • phone spy software
  • stalkerware

Where Can You Buy Spy Apps?

Spy apps can be purchased directly from the company’s websites. These apps are not available in the App Store or the Google Play Store because they are classified as spyware or stalkerware.

Are spying apps safe and secure?

Spying apps are generally safe. Most companies used encrypted communication to transfer phone data to their servers. This data is stored using powerful encryption. This ensures only the owner of the account can view data from the target device.

It is important to choose a reputable vendor when purchasing a spy software. Studies have found dangerous security vulnerabilities in some phone monitoring apps.

Are FREE phone spy apps any good?

iKeyMonitor is a good free spy app with limited features. The free version does not offer advanced features or technical support.

What is the best free phone spy app?

iKeymonitor is one of the only free hidden spy apps out there. They offer a free Android version of their spy software. Unfortunately the free version only offers a few features compared to the paid version.

What is the cheapest paid spy app?

The cheapest spy app is uMobix. A 12 month subscription costs $11.66 per month for an iPhone or Android phone.

What is the refund policy for spy apps?

Spy app refund policies vary greatly depending on the company. Some companies offer refunds within 72 hours of purchase. Others companies offer refunds within 30 days of purchase.

You should CAREFULLY read the refund policy before purchasing any spy software.

Can I get my money back if the spyware app doesn’t work?

Most spy software companies will issue a refund if you cannot get their surveillance software to work. When choosing an app, read their refund policy carefully, because some companies have clauses that make it difficult to get a refund.

Can spyware apps be detected?

Spyware apps can be detected using anti-virus software like Norton, Kaspersky, Bitdefender, and Avast. To combat this, software like uMobix, will disable the installation of antiv-virus software to remain undetected.

Can someone spy on my phone?

It is possible for someone to spy on your phone using monitoring software. If you suspect your phone has spyware you should download an anti-virus app like Norton or Kaspersky immediately.

What Spy Apps Can Be Installed Remotely?

iPhone spy software, like uMobix, Spyic, Cocospy, and iKeymonitor, can be installed remotely. These apps do not require installation because they download data from iCloud backups. If 2-factor authentication is enabled, they do require access to the iPhone to capture an activation code.

It is not possible to remotely install a spy app on Android mobile devices. You must have access to the target Android device.

Are phone spy apps legal?

Spy phone apps are legal in most countries if used for legitimate purposes. This includes monitoring your child’s phone or an employee’s company phone. Monitoring an adult’s phone without notifying them is illegal.

For more information you can check out this article on the legal requirements of phone spying apps.

About the Author

Jason has over 25 years in the information and internet security industry. He is passionate about smartphones, gadgets, and technology. He also got a solid background in programming and software.  This includes Python, C++, app development and more.

jason thompson