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.
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.
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.
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.
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.