George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its fictionalized account of mass surveillance and propaganda, continues to horrify us seventy-three years after it was written.
The modern twist on this is the popular idea that security services today have the technology to hack our phones and gain access to both our personal information and communications.
However, our phones are more likely to be targeted by more mundane sources in the form of hackers, spyware, malware, and adware.
Malware damages your phone by corrupting the files; spyware monitors what you are doing; and adware bombards the unsuspecting consumer with pop-up advertising.
These can have serious repercussions depending on the particular threat.
A virus systematically targets and destroys different areas. A hacker can gain access to your personal and financial data.
At worst, they can commit identity fraud and/or demand a ransom to desist from their path of cyber-destruction.
According to Suresh, Di Troia, and Potika et al., adware appears to be the most pervasive of the above four threats, but also the least harmful.
The problem is that adware often lies undetected- unless the savvy consumer knows what to look out for!
We need to be alert to the warnings that our phones give us when they are under the control of someone else.
It is relatively easy to distinguish between a malicious attack or a technical issue. In either case, the “symptoms” discussed in this article should be red flags that something is not right with your phone.
After identifying the issue and its likely cause, the next step is to determine the most effective solution to resolve the situation.
Here are some signs that could indicate that your phone has been hacked:
- The battery drains more quickly than usual.
- The phone uses more data than it usually does.
- Web pages and apps are slow to load.
- The phone freezes, crashes, refuses to open webpages, or opens sites that you did not select.
- Excess charges appear on your credit balance.
- There is a substantial increase in the number of pop-up ads appearing when you open a webpage.
- There have been attempts to reset passwords on your banking or social media accounts.
- The above problems start after opening an email or link, or after downloading software from an unofficial source.
- Both hacking and adware will use your phone to source and send data to another server. Sometimes, you are re-routed to other sites. This slows down the functionality of your phone and drains the battery.
- A hacker is able to view your texts, emails, search history, and phone logs remotely, which results in increased data usage and shorter battery life.
- Extra charges appearing in your credit balance may be the result of your searches being re-routed to pay-per-view websites.
While hacking and adware may well be the cause, sometimes it’s not as sinister as that. Phone hardware issues can also be a factor behind your phone acting like it’s under someone else’s control!
Here’s what you can do:
- Reboot or restart your phone. This is a quick fix if the problem is a temporary glitch.
- Close any apps or games that are running in the background and check how much energy they are using. If your phone is struggling with multiple apps, the battery will run down quickly and the phone may become hot to the touch.
- Check that you have enough RAM for your phone to operate effectively. You will need to delete old files or back them up to a different device to clear some space.
- Check for poor reception and connectivity issues. If the sound is cutting out, this may be the issue!
- Other technical issues that cause the phone to malfunction in the way outlined above include water damage, broken internal components, or problems with the charging port.
- Attempt to reboot your phone in Safe mode. Following that, turn off any third-party apps that have been installed.
- Set a secure password or PIN onto your phone.
- Install antivirus apps such as McAfee or Avast.
- Keep your operating system, software, and hardware up to date.
- Change your settings so that you get a notification if there is a sign-in from another device.
- Do not ignore warnings when installing software from an unofficial website. Better still, only ever use reputable sites!
- Ironically, instances of spyware still lurk on Google Play and Android Apps. These apps tend to require physical access to your phone, which is why you should keep your phone password-protected.
- If nothing else works, it might be best to attempt a factory reset to restore the phone to its original settings.
However, keep in mind that this will also delete your account passwords, bookmarks, and other settings- so make sure you backup everything you need!
As fast as the technology that enables you to protect your phone develops, the corresponding spyware, malware, and adware unfortunately keeps pace as well.
There is no time to be complacent when your identity and financial security is at stake!
The guidelines in this article are hopefully a helpful starting point for you to do your own research when it comes to outwitting the hackers and cyber-criminals that are out there.
 S. Suresh, F. Di Troia, K. Potika, et al. “An Analysis of Android Adware,” J Comput Virol Hack Tech 15 (2019):147–160, https://doi-org.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/10.1007/s11416-018-0328-8.