Cell Phone Monitoring Software Review
When Is Cell Phone Monitoring Legal?
Editor's Note: Because wiretap laws vary by state, we do not advocate using phone monitoring software to record phone calls, other audio or video. For example, some states require consent from all parties in a recording, and it may not be feasible to prevent your child from contacting someone living in one of those states. Although some of the software in our review can perform these functions, we did not test them or factor them in our scoring.
Since cell phone monitoring software lets you spy on a smartphone, it's only legal when you own the target device and your child is still a minor. If you're monitoring an adult or any other person, they need to be informed beforehand that monitoring software is on the device and that you can see their text messages and other actions. You may also need them to sign a consent form, depending on where you both live.
Why Use Cell Phone Monitoring Software?
The top performers in our review are PhoneSheriff, the Gold Award winner; Mobile Spy, the Silver Award winner; and XNSPY, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing cell phone monitoring software to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
While a smartphone can help you stay connected to your child, it can also provide them an easy way to view inappropriate material on the internet, including violence, pornography and gambling. It can also give your child an excuse to ignore schoolwork and other responsibilities. Cell phone monitoring software helps you watch over and protect your child by monitoring their cell phone activity and limiting it as you see fit.
There are plenty of cell phone monitoring options for any budget. Cheap apps may have comparable functionality to more expensive ones, though they are definitely more basic in their overall surveillance capacity. A higher price tag often comes with more powerful or invasive surveillance features, but these often require a rooted Android smartphone.
Before you buy, check how many devices the software license covers. Most of the cell phone spyware in our review allows only one target device per license. A couple options, such as Qustodio and Net Nanny, let you have up to five target devices on a single license, while PhoneSheriff and Mobile Spy each allow up to three target devices.
For more information on cell phone monitoring software, check out our articles on privacy software.
Why We Don't Recommend Rooting or Jailbreaking Your Smartphone
Many cell phone monitoring software options out there require you to root your Android phone or jailbreak your iPhone. Because of the inherent risks that come with either of these processes, we do not advocate doing so, and as such, we did not test any features that required us to root our Android test phones.
Google and Apple must approve apps sold in the iTunes and Google Play stores. This cuts down on security problems and keeps malware to a minimum. Jailbreaking or rooting your device to install unauthorized software or applications on your smartphone is generally considered a bad idea because it opens the door for malware.
In addition to the potential security risks, jailbreaking or rooting your device voids the device's warranty and can prevent future operating system updates. If you mess up the rooting or jailbreak process, you might brick the device so it no longer starts up, turning it into an expensive paperweight.
Cell Phone Monitoring Software: What We Evaluated, What We Found
As we tested each software, we checked to see what statistics and actions can be tracked and reported, as well as how easy it is to place a variety of restrictions on the target Android smartphone. We analyzed how easy it is to spy on text messages in particular. Our remote testing evaluated what we could do and view over the internet. We also noted how easy the spy software was to install on the device.
Premium cell phone monitoring options can take screenshots on the target device so you can see pictures, texts, chat, emails and internet searches as they happen or with a small delay. Unfortunately, the apps that have this feature also require you to root your device to use it.
Most software offers less intensive standard tools that let you view browser or communication history, track locations via GPS, remotely lock the phone, restrict activity, and even remotely wipe the device and back up important data.
Some of the monitoring options in our comparison run invisibly on the target device, while others are visible no matter what. Furthermore, some apps show up in the applications list, which may make them easy for tech-savvy teens to discover.
Tracking & Reporting
The best cell phone monitoring software makes it easy to track relevant information by having an intuitive interface and clear-cut reports. Most programs let you choose from a variety of reports, including monthly or hourly reports with graphs, lists of frequent contacts, browser history, newly installed apps, message history, calendar events, pictures taken and keystrokes.
Alerts & Restrictions
Most monitoring programs have functionality that goes beyond merely spying on cell phone activity. Some let you flag or block certain apps, websites and contacts. This feature helps you protect your children from undesirable people or inappropriate content. You can even restrict web searches or set up a notification to alert you if your child discuses inappropriate things via text or chat.
Certain spy software lets you view deleted material – such as texts, emails, chats, media and browser history – including web activity viewed on an incognito window, along with how often your child accessed it on a given smartphone. Most programs alert you if anyone tries to tamper with or remove the app or if they remove the SIM card.
Time limit settings are some of the most beneficial features for children, as they help them focus on schoolwork free of smartphone distractions. You can set a window of time for app and browser use and adjust it whenever needed. Some of the apps we tested allow you to remotely unlock the phone for a few minutes of open access if the user requests it.
Though these programs support most common cell phones and carriers, not all are compatible. It's important that you double-check the brand and model of the cell phone you want to monitor so you don't waste money on incompatible software. Most developers have extensive lists of compatible devices on their websites.
Each of the cell phone monitoring apps in our review works on Android and iOS devices. Some features require a rooted Android or jailbroken iOS device. Features are generally more limited on iOS than Android because Apple maintains strict control over the operating system. Some apps are also available for BlackBerry devices.
Most North American carriers – such as T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and Virgin Mobile – are compatible with the software, as are a few European carriers such as Orange and Oxygen. You need to have physical access to the target device to install the software, as none of them can be installed remotely.
Help & Support
Because spy software is detailed and feature heavy, it can be daunting to figure out how to use it. Good software developers provide you with resources to help you find the answers you need. You should be able to reach the company directly via live chat, phone, email or online form. Some also provide you with indirect assistance options such as user forums or tutorials and FAQs sections on their websites.
Our hands-on testing is designed to simulate normal, real-world experiences with cell phone monitoring software. We obtained the software in our comparison through retail purchase. The developers have no input on our testing methodology, and we do not share our rankings with them prior to publication.
Cell Phone Monitoring Software: Our Verdict & Recommendations
Three cell phone monitoring apps – PhoneSheriff, Mobile Spy and XNSPY – rose above the rest in our comparison, mostly because of their abilities to track and report a wide variety of data, provide alerts, set restrictions and support many devices and cell phone carriers. These are the factors we weighed as the most important in our rankings.
PhoneSheriff, our Gold Award winner, has excellent monitoring options and performed very well in our testing for usability, ease of installation, tracking and reporting. Our Silver Award winner, Mobile Spy, offers extremely extensive surveillance and reporting, and it gives you ample capacity to set limits and create alerts. XNSPY, our Bronze Award winner, is easy to use and has especially powerful reporting features.
As a parent, you do your best to raise your children and prepare them for adulthood. Along the way, you can get a little extra assistance from cell phone monitoring software to help teach your children responsibility and how to prioritize their time. At the very least, you can get a better understanding of your children.