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Is antivirus software necessary for Android?

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".

AndroidPIT antivirus teaser
Just how real are the threats on Android? / © ANDROIDPIT

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.

AndroidPIT Nexus 6 security malware
There are many ways that viruses or malware can get onto your phone. / © ANDROIDPIT

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.

Kaspersky Labs mobile threats malware types

Distribution of mobile malware by type. / © Kaspersky Lab

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. 

AndroidPIT Lollipop Settings Security Unknown Sources
You are the biggest threat: disabling security features, installing unofficial apps, etc. / © ANDROIDPIT

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.

androidpit android phones confused
You usually won't know you're affected by malware until things start going wrong. / © ANDROIDPIT

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.

avast screen 3
Premium version of antivirus apps usually come with extra features © ANDROIDPIT

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.

smartphone security
Anything you deem necessary to protect your Android is worth doing, even if only for peace of mind. / © ANDROIDPIT

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. 

38 comments

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  • Dennis E. 5 months ago Link to comment

    thanks good news

  • If the antivirus app can't remove the malware, how do you actually get rid of it?

  • KEVIN 10 months ago Link to comment

    This is actually true , you don't need antivirus on android. for 3 years until now I never experienced virus. my phone is rooted for a long time and without antivirus.

  • im use 360 security... so far no dubt about it. It's work fine for my phone..

  • for me 360 security is the best.... well i guessssss.

  • 18
    anshul Dec 9, 2015 Link to comment

    Yes, I am using Avast Mobile Security. It works well. I am using smart phone from last 4 years but till now nothing happened. It is good to use your device responsibly. Even I had some misconception about Anti Virus before reading this article. Now everything is crystal clear. Time to free some space in my phone.

    Thank you Scott.

  • storm Dec 8, 2015 Link to comment

    For a user who uses mainstream reliable sites and only ever uses the Google Play store, they're probably OK with out AV. People who, sideload questionable apps, surf and download less than savory content and such would be wise to use AV. If you root and do any of those things AV is a necessity.

    There have been some instances of infected ads, but the rate is low enough for now that I don't consider this worth the performance hit of AV.

  • I've never really had a big issue with security on my phone. I've gone on without a security app to help protect my phone for a while and my phone still reacts as if it was the day I bought it. It wasn't till just recently I came across the "360 Security" app, I read up on the app and what it does for the phone.. I was curious on how my phone was performing I trusted the app and downloaded it, and honestly it's actually helping with the life of my battery and the smooth function of my phone.. I scanned the phone and cleaned everything up, it works pretty good. This is probably my first security app I've downloaded. I have friends that have androids and never have I heard them speak about viruses or malware, even apple user I never heard them say anything about viruses either. Phones now-a-days are so advanced it's getting harder and harder to try and hack them. #teamandroid

  • Tage .T Dec 6, 2015 Link to comment

    A'm not paranoid for virus and trojan one Android,but i use "Mcafee" 

  • Yes, the issue of security is overstated...reminds me of our government's phony "war on terror"...

  • It's funny how CleanMaster is the only software that can remove Beyond.Anywhere - and now Cheetah has a deal with Samsung to include CM on all of its phones. Beyond.Anywhere sound like a marketing scam to anyone else?

    • John Feb 2, 2015 Link to comment

      They always include the good stuff in later versions of phones.don't they?

  • John Jul 16, 2014 Link to comment

    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.

  • John Jul 16, 2014 Link to comment

    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.

    • @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.

      • John Feb 2, 2015 Link to comment

        Agreed.Rooting is the best thing I ever did for my Sensation SE.Now I"m in control.

  • GMan Jul 14, 2014 Link to comment

    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 . . .

  • 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?

    • 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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