How Does Cell Phone Spy Software Work?

teenagers using their cell phones

Cell phone spy software, or spy apps, is a mobile app that secretly monitors and obtains information from a target phone. This software can record phone calls, intercept text messages, social media chats, internet browsing history, and other sensitive information.

All recorded data is sent to the application’s server. The spy app runs in the background and cannot be detected by users.

How Cell Phone Spy Apps Work

While there is a big difference in the terminology used by the dozens of companies that make this type of software, they all function in the same basic way. The best Android spy apps will have a simple process that looks like the following:

  1. Get access to the phone you intend to monitor.
  2. Install the app on the device (usually a quick download).
  3. Enter license key information into the app.
  4. In some cases you will need to hide the app if it doesn’t hide itself.
  5. Login to your control panel to monitor data from the phone.

The Installation Process

Typically you will need physical access to the phone, and know the users password, in order to install the spy app software.

Most of these apps are quite small and can be downloaded in seconds. Many companies can help you install the app for a small fee. This is worthwhile just to ensure everything is configured properly.

To get the most possible data some software will require you to jailbreak or root the phone. More on this in a bit.

There are a few exceptions to physically installing the app on a phone. mSpy (and a couple others) allow you to access everything through the users iCloud account. However this only works if the user has iCloud backups enabled on their phone.

Jailbreaking and Rooting the Phone

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

Not all spy apps require you to jailbreak or root the phone. But if you want access to information in Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Tinder, Snapchat, and other chat apps you WILL need to take this extra step. This step is something that spy app companies can help you with through their tech support teams.

No Jailbreak Solution

If you are less technically savvy then the no-jailbreak option is probably the best route. mSpy’s iCloud solution is totally web-based.
It allows you spy on the phone without ever installing software and gives you access to nearly everything on the phone. This includes:

  • call logs and contacts
  • text messages, iMessages, and Whatsapp
  • browsing history
  • location tracking
  • Calendar information
  • log keystrokes

The only caveat is that you will need the users Apple ID login information and the iCloud Backup option must be enabled in the settings of their phone. This solution does not work for Android devices as there is no comparable cloud backup service.

Accessing Your Control Panel

highster online control panel
To view all of the information captured by the spy app you will login to a web-based control panel. While different companies have different control panel options, they all do basically the same thing.

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


Most spy apps are designed to work with both iOS (iphone and iPad) and Android devices. Some phones, like the Google Pixel, are not supported. But most phones from Samsung, LG, Apple, Nokia, Blackberry, and many more are supported.

To find out if the phone you want to monitor is supported you can do a quick check of compatible phones on the company’s website.

Apps from FlexiSPY, mSpy, Highster Mobie, Spyzie, and other big players will be compatible with even the newest iOS and Android operating systems. Again it’s worth noting that Android spy apps will require you to have physical access to the phone.

Cellular and Internet Access

All of these apps rely upon an internet connection to send and receive information. If the phone is in a dead area or currently has no internet, data will be delayed to your control panel.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to see it, it just means that it will be stored locally on the phone until internet access is reestablished. Then all of the data will be sent to the app’s server and will shortly be reflected in your control panel.

Legal Considerations

Mobile phone spy software is designed to monitor and record data such as SMS messages, call history, GPS location, and more.

Parents may use spying apps to monitor their children’s phone and social media activity. Employers may also install monitoring software on company-owned devices to track an employee’s email or internet activity.

It’s also important to know that installing a spying app on someone’s phone without their permission is considered illegal and should be handled very carefully.

About the Author Jason Thompson

Jason is a work from home dad who has a passion for DIY projects, yard work, and SEC Football. His background is IT, but he's always fancied himself as a part-time ship welder, landscaper, and short order cook. During the week he can be found on his laptop 10 hours-a-day, but on the weekends he escapes to the local DIY Cave to play with REAL toys.  You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and can contact him via email.