How To Tell If Spyware Is Hiding On Your iPhone

Security has long been a major selling point for Apple's iPhone in an industry that's been notoriously riddled with malicious actors looking to exploit the masses. The company even uses this rationale to keep the source code of its operating system closed while actively rejecting pleas for allowing users to sideload third-party applications on their iOS devices. However, widespread attacks on iPhones of journalists and activists worldwide using NSO's infamous Pegasus spyware over the past few years make it evident that more work needs to be done. 

Spyware such as Pegasus operates in stealth, meaning a person could have it running on their iPhone without their knowledge. If you have been seeing suspicious activity on your iPhone or just want to be sure that yours is free from any sort of malware or spyware, we will guide you through the steps you can use to tell if you're actually affected by spyware or if it's just a far simpler scam.

How to know if your iPhone has spyware

There are some telltale signs that suggest your smartphone might have been infected by spyware. One sign could be a bit of sluggish performance on a relatively new iPhone despite having the latest software update from Apple. Slow performance can indicate some intrusive software running in the background — you might also see suboptimal performance if your iPhone is part of Apple's iOS beta program.

Additionally, extensive heating or faster than usual draining of the battery could be other signs that suggest your iPhone may have spyware. You must also be wary if you see unusual text messages, especially in a language you do not understand, or encounter an app you can't remember installing. Google's Product Zero team has listed some other ways in which the Pegasus spyware has been known to infect iPhones.

Moreover, as a general rule of thumb, you must not click on a link or download any attachment from an email that you do not recognize or trust.

These signs are not the absolute indicators of malware or spyware presence on your phone. You might also require specialized tools to be sure.

How to detect spyware on your iPhone

While many apps on the Apple App Store claim to scan and remove malware and other infectious files, storage restrictions in iOS prevent such tools from actually scanning the iPhone entirely. To successfully scan an iPhone for malware or spyware, you can buy a tool such as Certo AntiSpy. Certo, the company behind the tool, says it scans the iPhone comprehensively and gives you a list of potential threats, as shown in its demo video. Instead of running directly on an iPhone, the app runs on a Mac or Windows PC with the iPhone connected over USB. The easy-to-use interface should allow anyone with a basic understanding of computers to use the software.

The only downside is that it is not a free solution, and you will have to pay $49.95 per year to use the software. Unfortunately, you have no free trial to get the job done without having to pay for it.

However, if you would like to save your money and are open to dealing with a more complex solution, Mobile Verification Toolkit (MVT) is a free and open-source diagnostics tool used for forensic analysis. Thankfully there is a step-by-step guide to finding spyware on your iPhone. You can also use a video guide by censiCLICK on YouTube to make the process a bit more palatable.

MVT will basically work by creating an iTunes backup of your iPhone and then scanning the backup for any spyware. Just be prepared to download and use the Python programming environment (and, in the process, troubleshoot unforeseen errors). The entire procedure could take a few hours, so be sure you are mentally ready to invest in it.

How to remove spyware from your iPhone

If you chose to spare yourself the manual labor and paid for an AntiSpy tool like the one linked above, it is likely the tool will suggest steps you can take, such as removing an infected file or module or uninstalling an app. If, however, you are using MVT, the tool will show you a list of problematic files or installed apps that may be causing a potential spyware scare. MVT will also create a list of potentially harmful websites one might have visited. But since MVT does not work on fixing those issues on your behalf, you will likely have to follow the required steps to ensure your iPhone is safe.

Once you've scanned your device, make note of suspicious apps, and uninstall them from your iPhone. In case of an essential app, such as WhatsApp, reinstall the app but avoid restoring any data that is already present on your device since that might reinfect the iPhone. 

Likewise, you want to delete files that look unfamiliar or malicious. If a necessary file has been infected or flagged as dangerous, quarantine it in a RAR or ZIP file and transfer the compressed file to your PC, where you can scan it using desktop-based antivirus software. If you are uncomfortable doing that, hire a security expert who might be able to secure the file for you.

Lastly, if MVT points at troublesome links in your browser, it would be in your best interest to clear your web browser's history.

How to protect your iPhone from Spyware

There are a few antivirus apps that claim to protect your iPhone against threats. Among such apps are Avast One and Avira Mobile Security. These apps scan links that you browse on your iPhone's web browser or receive through email or messaging. Security Apps like Avast's and Avira's also claim to scan your iPhone for unusual performance issues such as slowing down or excessive heating.

Among other features, you get the option to block unwanted calls, regularly check updates for apps and your iPhone, and use an inbuilt VPN service so your iPhone. Depending on the grade of security the app offers, you might get service for free or you may need to pay a small fee.

Apple will soon allow you to severely restrict spies or hackers, although it may only be relevant to a very small set of people with a high risk of "grave and targetted attacks." Called Lockdown Mode, the feature will restrict the iPhone from generating previews to links — which has been one of the most common ways to transmit the Pegasus spyware, as per The Washington Post. In addition, users will not be able to receive Facetime calls from others they haven't called in the past 30 days.

Apple will release Lockdown Mode as part of its upcoming iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura operating systems, which are already being beta-tested by developers.