They can’t quite match Q, but app developers still manage to produce some pretty clever – and sneaky – tools to add covert extras to an ordinary smartphone.
Free apps, subscriptions available
There’s a plethora of apps for locating phones. Fortunately, most of us don’t need to illicitly track an enemy agent or target their mobile with a Hellfire missile; we just need to find out where the kids are or where we left our own phones, so our first point of call is likely to be Android Device Manager, Find MyiPhone or Windows’ Find My Phone.
Assuming you have set them up correctly, it may take a few minutes but all these tools can locate a device which is connected to the logged-in account and online. They can also lock it and display a message on the lock screen, for example giving a contact number to call, carry out a data-wipe, which is the sort of thing you want for a lost, stolen or sold device, or make it ring, which is useful if you know “it’s around here somewhere.” Do bear in mind, though, that if a phone is stolen specifically for the data it contains, the first thing a smart thief will do is put it inside a Faraday cage and/or remove the battery, to block any location and reset signals.
However, there are tools that can do more and without breaking the law or resorting to deadly weaponry. Prey is one such – a multi-platform and open source anti-theft tool available for Apple, Linux and Windows laptops as well as for Android, iOS and Windows phones. Not only can Prey locate, lock or send messages to a missing device while concealing its presence from a thief, it lets you trigger other actions, too.
Most notably this means taking a photo – “often the crucial piece of data that police officers need to take action,” say its developers (who also stress the importance of not confronting the thief yourself). You can track up to three devices and take photos on a free Prey account. To track more, you need to subscribe. Subscription (from $5 a month) also adds the ability to remotely wipe devices.
Android, £6.99/year, free trial
The other side of the coin is, of course, stopping others from spying on you, whether it is the generic sort of spying practised by apps containing adware and which track your browsing, or the targeted type where someone installs tracking or spying software on your device. When you install an app on Android, for example, you are told what permissions it requires. The problem is that the list can be quite lengthy and it is not always easily understood and if an app is installed covertly you will not see the warning anyhow. It is also possible to add new permissions within an update to an app that is already installed.
The first thing an anti-spy app such as StopBadApp (aka Ad Clean & Antivirus Security) will do is scan the permission lists, looking for anything suspicious – this might include location detection, access to the device’s microphone and camera, or access to your contacts list. Then it scans for apps that present adverts or are known to be annoying. Needless to say, that initial scan will include quite a few false positives, such as travel apps that need your location, or a voice over IP app that needs access to the microphone and your contact list. Mark these to be ignored and future scans will only pick up new warnings.
The free version carries adverts itself, albeit relatively discreet ones, and while it can be set to scan for potential tracking and surveillance threats, you cannot see the results of the scan without subscribing. Fortunately it offers a seven-day free trial, so you can try out the full app then cancel if it’s not right for you. If you are an iPhone user you do not have many options here, because Apple removed antivirus and antimalware apps from its AppStore earlier this year.
On the one hand that is OK, because as long as your iPhone is not jailbroken, it is hard for an attacker to get spyware on there. On the other, if you are being targeted by the sort of people who can almost certainly do this (think military-grade surveillance, government-sponsored hackers, and so on) then commercial tools may not be up to the task anyhow.
Free or £1.49 on iPhone
Most of the time it is pretty obvious when you use your phone to take a picture: there you are, trying to line up the image on the touchscreen, before clicking the on-screen shutter button.Apps such as Secret Camera for the iPhone get round that by near-blanking the screen and using some other trigger. In this case you press and hold anywhere on the screen and the camera will fire, with an optional buzz to let you know it’s taken a picture. Photos can be stored in the main camera roll or in a private folder.
Of course, if you leave the phone’s audio switch on you will get a shutter sound, too – this is a legal requirement in some jurisdictions – but switch the ringer off and the camera is silent. It’s free with ads, or £1.49 to remove them. Other platforms have a range of similar apps to choose from. A nice one for Android users isMusaDroid’s Secret Camera, which fires when you press the phone’s power button several times in a set period, normally three presses in three seconds. Again, a buzz lets you know it has taken a photo, and you can opt to have three presses make it start or stop recording video instead.
Free on Android
The idea behind fake call apps is simple: they simulate an incoming phone call, giving you an excuse to escape if your meeting is getting boring or your blind date is not going to plan. When the ‘call’ comes you can answer or ignore it. Of course, answering it may require a certain amount of acting ability to make the urgent need to leave seem believable. There’s a ton of these apps on pretty much every smartphone platform, the challenge is to find one that not only works well but is not too ad-heavy.
For instance, there are many almost identical apps for Android, but most expect you to enter the fake caller details afresh every time, or they ruin the effect by popping up ads at the wrong moment. One caveat with apps of this kind is to check whether they can use your existing ring tone. If they simply use their own, as many of the Windows Phone apps do for instance, then anyone who knows you – and your preferred ring tone – is less likely to be fooled.
We eventually settled on an Android app from developer Forfreedom, in part because it lets you use existing contacts and ring tones (assuming you trust it to do so!), and it remembers your choices. You can schedule a fake call up to 60 minutes ahead, adding or recording a sound file for veracity – or if you want to play a trick on someone.