Do Android Antivirus Apps Actually Do Anything?

If you've been watching tech news headlines over the past week, you've likely heard that Android malware is growing at an alarming rate, up something like 472 per cent from May of this year. Should you be worried and run off to purchase and install an antivirus package for your Android phone? Not so fast; there's just as much controversy over those utilities as there is over the malware itself.

Yes, Malware for Android Is Real, And It's Growing

The one thing that can't be refuted is that the amount of malware for the Android platform has skyrocketed. After all, it's only natural for malware authors to target one of the most popular and fastest growing mobile platforms. Juniper's Global Threat Center, the group that created the report and the infographic that's been raising eyebrows points out that the flood of Android malware can be broken into two categories.

  • SMS Trojans. SMS Trojans operate in the background of normal applications, sending SMS messages to premium rate numbers, or numbers that charge you each time an SMS is sent to them. In the same way you can send an SMS message to a specific number to vote on a television show (and conveniently pay a modest fee for sending that massage), these trojans send messages to numbers -- often international -- owned by the attacker. In fact, you don't even notice the unusual behaviour until you review your phone bill, or check your account to see if there's been recent SMS activity. Of course, by the time you see it, the messages have already been sent, and your account has already been billed. SMS trojans account for just under half of all Android malware.
  • Spyware. The lion's share of Android malware is actually spyware. Just over half the known examples are applications that access have deep access and permissions to your system, or which exploit vulnerabilities in Android to gain root access to the device, collect information about the device and the user, and then send it back to the app's developer.

Juniper isn't the only security research firm that has highlighted the threat. A new report from McAfee, highlighted over at Neowin, says the same thing. Both research firms say that the bulk of the malware is being written by the same authors who were responsible for similar attacks against old Windows Mobile and Symbian devices years ago. In essence, it's not that Android has suddenly drawn in a new generation of malcontents, but that the older, more vulnerable platforms aren't as interesting anymore.

No, Mobile Anti-Malware Utilities For Android Are Not Perfect

To combat the mobile malware threat, a number of security firms have released their own utilities designed to keep you safe. Researchers will tell you that you need some kind of protection to keep your phone and the data on it safe and secure. That may be true, but not everyone is taking research firms like Symantec, McAfee and Juniper at their word. Google's Chief Evangelist, Chris DiBona, called out researchers for being charlatans and scammers and accused them of peddling "scareware". Admittedly, DiBona isn't exactly an impartial observer, but there may be something to his concerns.

DiBona notes that even though there has been a rise in malware for the Android platform, there has yet to be an open and spreading infection among Android devices, the same way we've seen with desktop computers. Part of the issue is that there's no simple transmission method between mobile devices in the wild. Despite DiBona's concerns, security researchers point out that mobile devices are essentially handheld computers, and that they carry a great deal of information about us that identity thieves would consider valuable.

At the same time, security products available for Android don't offer the same level of protection that desktop security tools offer. There's no active scanning of files or applications that enter memory, or regular checking of applications that are downloaded and installed. You can't just install a mobile security suite on your Android phone and assume you'll be safe regardless of what you do. Until security tools mature, the real weapon you have against Android malware is common sense. Don't install applications from unusual or suspicious sources, avoid installing apps from the Android market or other trusted markets, and evaluate the permissions required by the apps you install before you install them or allow them to auto-update. Keep a close watch on your SMS and data activity even in between billing cycles, and raise any issues to your carrier as soon as you see them.

The Verdict

Well, the question we started with was: Does Android antivirus apps actually do anything? The simple answer is yes. They can be helpful, even if they're not bulletproof or even as protective as their desktop counterparts are. There's a ton of Android malware out there, but the upside to the whole affair is that it's not terribly easy to get, if you use your phone normally. Also, even if the malware threat to Android is a bit overinflated right now, security companies that are eager to sell you an antivirus package or app for your mobile device are at least providing a partially useful service.

Even if their apps aren't ready for prime time to combat malware in the wild, they do give you other useful tools, like remote tracking or data wipe if your phone has been lost or stolen, backup for all of your files and data and more. At the same time, some apps have those same features for free. If you've installed Norton Mobile Security or McAfee Wavesecure, there's no need to uninstall it and ask for your money back. The utilities will only get better with time. Still, keep in mind that no mobile security app is a replacement for common sense.

Republished from Lifehacker.



    Not to be that guy; but the best anti-virus there ever was, no matter what platform, is common sense.

    I'll never install AV on my phone. Ever.

      That's optimistic. I reckon that eventually, yes you will.

      Mac users said the same thing for a long time.

        I switched to OSX when Lion came out, but the first thing I did after starting my laptop was install A/V for OSX.. hardly ever needed, but its not worth the risk of infection

    Quote: "....avoid installing apps from the Android market or other trusted markets...." Umm, what? Don't install apps from the Android Market?

    I think you meant "only install apps from from the Android market or other trusted markets."

    I would imagine that because of the sandboxed nature of phones, antivirus have a harder time being useful. Sandboxing is really designed to mitigate malware, but it works both ways.

    For antivirus to be effective on a phone it would have to operate at OS level. However, this also gives malware makers a clear target, which antivirus they need to hide from. Its a never ending race.

      I don't think Android enforces sandboxing like iOS and WP7 do.

    Yes, we'll trust companies like McAfee with their reports. Antivirus apps on smartphones don't DO anything, they're just a scam that plays to peoples' natural fear of malware from desktop platforms. Sandboxing essentially shuts down malware, as well as more stringent content approval.

    Companies like McAfee and Global Threat Centre have a vested interest in keeping this fear alive so take it all with a grain of salt.

    @Jason..... BINGO. End of the day, people who get these trojans and install spyware have no one to blame but themselves.

    Didnt Giz already go through this android bashing of "Antivirus apps do nothing" a few weeks ago? Anyhoo, basic common sense and an antivirus app (eg AVG) is all one needs to protect themselves. If youre really paranoid though, install nothing on your phone and go to settings and turn off "Unknown Sources". Oh and dont use your phone to surf the web, or download email attachments either.

    LOL Android needs virus softare....hang on....that's bad too....LOL

    There's something to be said for Apple's closed nature, there is an upside to it everybody. iPhone don't need no steeenking AV software!

    All of you android "I'm a pro user type people with problems have themselves to blame" do realise what the consequences of this long term will be don't you?

    The majority of the market is made up of simple users, not pro users. When these users are stung, or get in their heads that "android is the phone with all the viruses" they'll buy an iPhone or Windows Phone instead.

    If they do that, you lose your marketshare, and your OS growth goes backwards.

    So maybe you should be concerned instead of dismissive? It's pretty terrible out of the three major smartphone platforms malware on iOS and Windows Phone is pretty well non existant, and when discovered patched quickly, while on android it is a massive issue with most handsets never being able to receive security patches / new versions without being rooted and a custom ROM being loaded..

      "while on android it is a massive issue " Its not a massive issue, the scale of the threat is massively overblown. If you get your apps from trusted markets, examin the ratings of the apps and pay attention to app permission there would be a very low chance of getting anything nasty.

      I'm not a novice user but I know plenty of people that are, they either don't bother with apps much at all or get them from the Android market. I've yet to see them have any issues.

    Ive never used a virus scanner on my desktop pc (ill do the occasionaly trend micro online scan) and have never had an issue with Malware or Trojans. As the article and Jason above mention common sense is really the best protection.
    I do honestly think that the security companies intentionally overstate the danger, fear is what sells their product.

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