We are often asked whether antivirus apps for Android are necessary, and for good reason. Apple has tried hard to discredit Android as a virus-infested swamp of malware and there have been several high-profile Android security threats. Android has a tarnished reputation for security and viruses. But is this justified? Would Android users benefit from antivirus apps?
Not according to Android security chief Adrian Ludwig. Just prior to the Google I/O developer conference earlier this year, Ludwig told reporters: "Do I think the average user on Android needs to install [antivirus apps]? Absolutely not. I don’t think 99 percent plus of users get a benefit from [anti-virus apps]."
Ludwig also claimed that the threat posed by Android malware has been "overstated".
So where does this leave us? If the chief security engineer for Android says it ain't a problem, suggesting antivirus companies are just trying to sell their products, then should we be concerned? Maybe. Security companies and antivirus app developers would respond by saying Google is simply trying to downplay the flaws in its own Play Store. But let's back up a step.
What are Android 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. Viruses don't actually infect Android, because they don't self-replicate, but the term gets used nonetheless.
Security reports – usually from antivirus and security companies – regularly tell us that the threats are on the rise. Whether you believe these reports or, like Ludwig, think they're simply trying to scare you into installing an app, it's a good idea to know as much as you can about Android viruses and where they come from.
Where does Android malware come from?
The Google Play Store is the largest target for this type of malware and scams, because it is the mainline delivery system for content onto your phone. The sheer volume of apps uploaded (and downloaded) per day, along with the lack of comprehensive policing, makes it an easy target.
But there are plenty of other delivery mechanisms for viruses and malware. Emails with attachments – much like the ones you get on your PC – or MMSs that get automatically downloaded, hacks on popular apps such as WhatsApp, phishing scams, fake apps, APKs you've installed manually (outside of the Play Store) or clicking suspect download links, among others.
What is the risk of malware and viruses?
The security threat malware poses to your device varies. In some cases, it will simply send ads to your smartphone, which is annoying but not exactly dangerous. At other times, rogue software can imitate sites or apps you normally trust, tricking you into giving up your password or credit card details.
"Do I think the average user on Android needs to install [antivirus apps]? Absolutely not" – Android Security Engineer, Adrian Ludwig
One of the most common security risks is in apps from the Play Store that pose as reputable apps – you know the ones: they usually have the exact same name and icon as the real one.
Once installed, these sketchy ripoff apps reveal their true purpose and either send text messages to premium phone numbers, attempt to open back doors to hackers or otherwise make you and your phone more vulnerable through nefarious means.
How do I know if I have been affected by malware?
Often you won’t be able to tell if your smartphone is under threat, or if you are about to download something potentially harmful. What's worse is that, once you are affected, you frequently won't even know it, unless an unusually high credit card bill comes in or your phone starts acting strangely. The dumbest thing a hacker can do is let you know you've been hacked, after all.
Besides installing an Android antivirus app and running a scan, there's not much more you can do without a Masters degree in computer science. The best defense is a good offense, though, so the best approach is to have good habits in the first place. Fortunately, when a malware scandal is big enough, the patch is usually widely known and applied.
However, you're arguably at more risk of losing your phone without adequate protection (lock screen security or a remote wipe option) than you are of having your phone affected negatively by a virus or malware.
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).
Antivirus apps for Android work in a similar way to the 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 antivirus app will highlight any problems.
Unlike Windows or Mac-based antivirus software, however, Android antivirus apps do not automatically remove harmful software for you – you have to do this manually once they have been identified. Not all virus definitions are up-to-date and not all antivirus apps have the same features. The good news is that they quite often provide a lot of added features that can be really useful, such as backup solutions and remote wipe features.
How much do antivirus apps cost?
It varies. There are often free and paid-for versions of the same apps, but in most cases the vital functionality is available in the free version.
Paid or pro versions feature the same core functionality but add some of the useful additional features I mentioned above, such as remote lock and wipe, backup options, ad blocking and more.
Should I install a free security app?
Well, some people (me included) debate whether antivirus apps offer any discernable benefit to your device. These security apps cannot protect you from a lack of common sense. In fact, most of the protection they offer only comes into effect once you’ve already fallen victim to malware.
Most of the protection antivirus apps offer only comes into effect once you've already fallen 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). Likewise, don't install unverified APKs from outside Google Play, be wary of attachments from email addresses you don't trust, don't randomly click download links and so on.
If you do choose to install an antivirus app, be aware that they commonly consume a lot of battery, take up disk space, annoy you with notifications and reduce processing speed. Naturally, how they affect your system depends on how you use them, but the vast majority of Android users will never encounter any security threats or see any need to clog up their system with antivirus apps.
So what does this all mean?
The simple truth is, thieves, hackers, bandits and hoodlums will try to exploit anything; it is inevitable that a platform with over a 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? That's really up to 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? 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.
Regardless of whether antivirus apps are ineffective or Google is just trying to sweep a growing problem under the rug, I recommend you take any precaution you deem necessary to stay safe. The downside of installing an antivirus app is negligible. They do consume system resources, but they probably do more good than harm and if they make you feel more secure, that's worth something.
Do you have antivirus apps on your Android? Have you ever been affected by malware? Share your experiences in the comments.