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Is antivirus software necessary for Android?

Scott Adam Gordon
25

Just like human beings, smartphones get sick too. Viruses can bring them down, forcing our handsets to call in sick, or go to work feeling under the weather. At least, this is what anti-virus software developers would have you believe. I’m here to investigate the importance of smartphone antivirus protection, what it is, what it does and whether you need to install it on your device.

Avast logo
© Avast

What are viruses?

A virus is a type of malicious software (malware) program, the likes of which have been infecting our PCs for decades. As the Android platform has developed and became more widely used, so too has the number of potential threats to the system. A recent report from Cheetah Mobile shows that the number of daily Android users infected by malware increased from over 11,000 users to nearly 17,000 users between May 16th and June 15th. Scary.

Where do they come from?

The Google Play Store provides the largest target for these this type of malware and scams because it is widely prevalent and easily accessible on almost every Android device. It’s the main place people go to for downloading data to their handset, and the volume of apps uploaded per day, coupled with the lack of policing, make it an easy target.

What is the risk?

The security threat malware poses to your device varies. In some cases, it will send adverts to your smartphone, other times rogue software can imitate sites you normally access, tricking you into giving up your password or credit card details. One of the most common security risks is in apps from the Play Store that pose as reputable apps, and once installed they send text messages to premium phone numbers to drain money from your account. These programs are engineered to ultimately, one way or another, take your money.  

android malware
As far as mobile platforms are concerned, Android contains the lion's share security threats, with 97% of all Malware attacks being targeted at Android as of the end of 2013. © F-Secure.com

How do I know if I have been affected by malware?

Oftentimes you won’t even be able to tell if your smartphone is under threat, or if you are about to download something potentially harmful. A recent scam in Korea saw users receiving SMS messages saying that they had been caught speeding, with a link to further information. No prizes for guessing that clicking the link automatically downloaded malicious software.

What are antivirus apps?

Antivirus apps are a method of identifying threats to your handset. There are hundreds of antivirus apps available for free from the Google Play Store, and discerning which are best is difficult (AV-Test, an Independent security institute, compile a league table every few months of the best antivirus apps for Android, should you be interested). They work similar to antivirus software you would find on your PC, once installed you can use them to scan the files on your phone for sneaky software you may have inadvertently downloaded, and the software will highlight any problems. Unlike windows antivirus apps, however, Android antivirus apps do not automatically remove harmful software for you - you have to do this manually once they have been identified.

How much do antivirus apps cost?

It varies, there are often free and paid versions of the same apps, but in most cases the vital functionality is available in the free version.  

avast screen 3
If you want to pay for the premium version of antivirus apps they usually come with a ton of extra features © AndroidPIT

Why not install a free security app?

Well, some people (like me) debate whether antivirus apps offer any discernable benefit to your device. These security apps cannot protect you from lack of common sense, in fact, most of the protection they offer only comes into effect once you’ve fell victim to malware. The vast majority of malware is gleaned from the Google Play Store, but many of the simple security risks can be avoided just by being sensible (you may already be aware of these if you read my article on app permissions).

Android antivirus apps will potentially consume battery, take up disk space, annoy you with notifications and reduce processing speed. Naturally, it depends on how you use them and how as to how much they will affect your system, nevertheless most users will never encounter any security threats and see no need to “clog up” their system.

So what does this all mean?

With Cheetah Mobile announcing the global rise rise in Android malware*, my opening statement seems somewhat incredulous. The simple truth is, thieves, hackers, bandits, hoodlums...they will try to exploit anything; it is inevitable that a platform with 1 billion active users will become a target.

Can scams, viruses trojans et al be avoided by sensible use of your smartphone? In most cases, yes. Does this mean we don’t need antivirus software? I’ll leave that for you to decide. As long as you’re careful on the Play Store, downloading apps or data from known and reputable sources, you should remain protected on Android. But why risk it? It’s undeniable that threats to Android devices are becoming more and more common. I’d even recommend downloading software just to run a scan every once in a while and then removing it again.

Update 07/14/2014

Over the weekend some more interesting news about antivirus apps appeared. Google's chief security engineer for Android, Adrian Ludwig, spoke out about the importance of security apps, and he touched on some of the points I originally discussed here. "Do I think the average user on Android needs to install [antivirus apps]? Absolutely not." He said. Ludwig also claimed that the threat posed by Android malware has been "overstated".

So where does this leave us? Chief security engineer of Google says it ain't a problem, suggesting antivirus companies are just trying to sell product. Security companies are saying Google is trying to downplay the flaws in its own Play Store (ahead of considerable expansion into wearables and even cars).

Whether antivirus apps are ineffective, or Google are just trying to sweep a growing problem under the rug, take any precaution you deem necessary to stay safe. If you want to know more about protecting yourself against the apps you install, check out my article about the meaning of app permissions and when it is safe to download.

Do you use antivirus software on Android? Have you ever fell victim of a cyber attack?

*It should be noted that Cheetah Mobile is a leading provider of anti-virus software, and I can't comment on how accurate the data is.

 

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Comments

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  • Zaid Siddiqui 1 month ago Link

    i have never used any anti virus app on my phone! i don't feel the need! They run 24x7 in the background which is quite annoying! instead i avoid such web links, apps on play store or third party apps which are suspicious! i agree that a little common sense can save you and your smartphone from such viruses and anti viruses too! 😜

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      mobile crackers 1 month ago Link

      i have never used any antivirus app too.. they take a lot of ram and memory.

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        Scott Adam Gordon 1 month ago Link

        Yeah I think most users hold this opinion. If the statistics are to be believed, though, malware is becoming more and more prevalent, and I think it's only a matter of time before people start to install antivirus apps out of fear.

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      • Carlos Moreira 1 month ago Link

        That is already happening. Actually, there's much people that install an AV as soon as they get a new phone. The problem is: they usually don't know if that app is an AV or just a scam. Some of my friends were trusting apps that, from time to time, made fake scans and showed that almost everything on their phones were viruses. Out of fear they ran into the thing they feared the most: a malicious app. It's all about being careful and keep the risks at a low level.

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    mobile crackers 1 month ago Link

    There are more spywares app than malware

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    John F. 1 month ago Link

    @scott you have again leave me in a vain ! The time I spotted the post I thought now doubt is going to clear up ! But as you said i'll leave it upon you to decide, and the confusion continues.

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      Scott Adam Gordon 1 month ago Link

      Hehe okay. Mobile security companies (independent and otherwise) claim that mobile security risks are very real and that antivirus apps can help prevent them (or at very least detect them).

      Go here: http://tinyurl.com/pjf6etu

      And install one of the highest rated apps. That's my advice. My official stance on the subject is "why risk it?" Android is a huge platform, fraud is a huge business, and I don't doubt that there are many victims and that antivirus software can be useful.

      So there, everybody happy now! ;0)

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        John F. 1 month ago Link

        @scott that sounds bit more justified ! Why to risk our device ;) instead of it let us install and Antivirus !

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  • King Rise 1 month ago Link

    I use AVG and it scans an app as soon as you install it. twice it warned me that apps were classified as adware and I deleted them without opening them. I see it as a must on any phone computer or tablet.

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  • Saem Sarguroh 1 month ago Link

    As far as I remember, there has been a post before (I think on AndroidPit itself) which said that the smartphones are not affected the way we think our PCs are affected and the number is very few. I cant find the post otherwise would have linked it.

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    • Moni Mihailov 1 month ago Link

      Yes, I read it too some time ago :) Used Avast a year ago and my phone lagged so badly that I couldn't even scroll through settings smoothly (S3 Mini)!

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        Scott Adam Gordon 1 month ago Link

        I think you guys are right. Smartphones aren't affected in the same way, but the damage is no less severe - you can still have money and personal details stolen. The latest reports suggest a rapidly growing number of security threats to Android, so I think security apps are more important (and function better) now than ever before.

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      • Saem Sarguroh 1 month ago Link

        No doubt. The threat is increasing. If you are an average user with less knowledge about what you do or download to your device then antivirus is a must.

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  • Raindance Rob 1 month ago Link

    its better to be on the safe side tbh. i use AVG Pro which like their Windows versions doesnt cain your system resources

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      Scott Adam Gordon 1 month ago Link

      Yep from what I've read AVG's effect on performance is relatively small. (But I can't comment on how good its protection is.)

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      • Raindance Rob 1 month ago Link

        the protection has been good so far and has warned me about a few apps

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  • David DeMello 1 month ago Link

    I have the full version on Bit Defender and couldnt be more happy. Built in mal ware for web sites and Apps.

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  • Rosalind W. 1 month ago Link

    I have used mobile antivirus software since they became available, namely AVG and eset which I am presently using, both free and both very adequate, neither are intrusive. Why not protect your mobile devices if it costs you nothing?

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      Scott Adam Gordon 1 month ago Link

      Yeah I think that's the most important thing. If it's not intrusive/doesn't affect your smartphone performance, I don't think there is a good reason not to :)

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  • GMan 1 month ago Link

    Hey guys :-)

    My advice as a person who does install many time from 3rd party (Web/XDA) and from Playstore (many apps aren't really safe) :
    -Find a good free AV (with high rate detection on AV-test for example)
    -Follow the CPU and app memory use and find one that is below average (install few of the top free and compare average process use and see which one doesn't effect your device performance/ battery)

    In the last months I use CM Security which really doesn't effect performance or stability but once i'll see any issue with performance or something like that there are many other free choices to pick from....
    BTW - One can always install a few - hibernate them with Greenify (Does not required root!) and keep one as protection and the other as for scanning once a week/month . . .

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      Scott Adam Gordon 1 month ago Link

      Excellent GMan thanks for the tips! I'm installing Greenify as I type this!!

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  • John 1 month ago Link

    As soon as the they tell you that it's not needed,that should tip you off.If you're doing sensitive things like online banking,business e-mail,etc.,I'd be SURE to have it.The Android O/S is the wild west as far as I'm concerned,but if I wanted some semblance of security,I'd have bought a BlackBerry.I run Kaspersky on my phone and it seems to work well,but I also run it on all my home computers.It doesn't seem to use much battery power over and above.Rooting & unlocking made the biggest difference.Now I'm rid of all the background app's that waste processor and battery power.It's amazing how many things can garbage up a phone and make it feel like it has a "virus",even when it doesn't.

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      Scott Adam Gordon 1 month ago Link

      @John, I know exactly what you mean. I often see background apps running and have to Google what they are just to make sure they are harmless. Most laptops and PC systems come with so much unnecessary "bloatware" too, so it's one of the best reasons I can think of to root your smartphone.

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  • John 1 month ago Link

    That's exactly what tipped me off.I saw my battery power dropping more than it should so I went exploring.On my original Sensation SE I saw Twitter,Linked In,Facebook,etc. all running in the background.The solution of course was unlock at HTC Dev and root [a tip of the hat to the guys at XDA for the pointers].Now Titanium Backup and SD Maid are my best friends.You are right though .... it's hard to tell the bloatware from the malware on those phones sometimes.

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