With smartphones being a treasure trove of personal information, many of us now worry about the possibility of catching a virus on our smartphone. In last week’s blog, we discussed how you can recognise a malicious smartphone app. This week, we’ll cover the best anti-virus applications.
With our smartphones now containing more personal information than ever before, it’s no wonder that criminals are trying to find a way in. Malicious applications try to steal our personal data including GPS location, SMS text messages and phone numbers of contacts. They can also run up extra charges by sending premium rate text messages. Malicious apps can also prove a great annoyance with regular pop-ups interrupting your use of the phone (see our guide to the tell-tale symptoms of a malicious smartphone app).
In general, your phone can be kept safe of viruses providing you follow some basic security tips. Stick to the official app store, check the requested permissions, double check the comments and only install apps with a large number of other users. You should also avoid jailbreaking or rooting your phone.
For extra reassurance, some smartphone users also choose to install an anti-virus app. Is anti-virus software really a necessity? And what are the best anti-virus apps available today? This article will explore these two questions.
When talking about viruses on a smartphone, it’s important we first outline the differences with viruses on a computer.
On a computer, downloaded programmes are normally given unfettered access to most of the PC. They can read any file, access any hardware and they can also change how other programmes work. Computer-based malware can burrow deep into the operating system: it’s why we have all kinds of PC-based malware including viruses, spyware, adware, trojans, keyloggers and more. Consequently, we need our PC anti-virus apps to search through the whole computer looking out for malware. With PC programmes available across the whole internet, the desktop computer is a bit of a wild west when it comes to viruses and malicious programmes.
On a smartphone, things work in a very different way. Every smartphone app runs in a sandbox: a heavily-controlled environment where the app is isolated from the rest of the device. Assuming your device isn’t rooted or jailbroken, applications aren’t able to change the core functionality of your phone. Any malicious behaviour is isolated to that app and it can only occur when permissions have been granted. As malicious behaviour is self-contained within an app, it’s much easier to find offending apps.
Because of the smartphone security model, it’s not always necessary to have an anti-virus app. Providing you follow our top security tips, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about. Many application stores (e.g. Apple App Store, Google Play & Windows Phone Marketplace) will automatically check uploaded applications for malicious behaviour. Most malicious apps should be prevented from even appearing in the store.
The real value of using an anti-virus app is when downloading applications from outside the official store. Given that this is only possible on Android-based devices, you’ll currently only find an anti-virus app on Android devices. On the iPhone and Windows Phone, there aren’t currently any anti-virus apps.
At present, anti-virus applications are not available on the iPhone. As with all other types of application, a hypothetical iPhone anti-virus app would also need to run in the sandbox. Within a sandboxed environment, it wouldn’t be possible to scan the behaviour of other apps.
As an alternative, Apple has a strict approval process for applications before they go live in the App Store. This approval process should normally filter out any known malicious apps. That said, some malicious apps have managed to slip through the process. For this reason, don’t put 100% of your trust in Apple’s review process. Stick to applications with a large number of downloads and make sure to check the app reviews (see our top smartphone security tips).
N.B. Several companies have developed security apps for the iPhone e.g. Norton for iPhone and McAfee Security for iPhone. Although it’s often assumed otherwise, iPhone security apps aren’t able to scan your phone for viruses. Instead, they focus on other security features such as backing up your phone book and remotely tracking your iPhone.
On the iPhone, it’s not currently possible to run an anti-virus app. Instead, you’ll need to rely on Apple’s “App Store” approval process and also your personal judgement of the app.
At present, it’s estimated that 99% of mobile malware is developed for Android devices. To avoid malicious apps, the best place to download a new application is from the official Google Play Store. Before applications go live in Google Play, they’re scanned for viruses using a cloud-based malware scanner. As always, don’t rely 100% on Google’s anti-virus tools: it’s still important to exercise caution when it comes to app permissions.
If downloading apps from outside Google Play, an anti-virus scanner can help to keep your phone secure.
On handsets running Android 4.2 or later, Google has provided a free cloud-based anti-virus scanner. Whenever you install an app from outside Google Play, the installation file will be sent to Google to be scanned for viruses. The anti-virus scanner can be enabled by opening the “Google Settings” app followed by the “Verify apps” option. Ensure the checkbox is ticked to use the scanning service.
Google offers a free service to “Verify apps”. This is a cloud-based anti-virus scanner for Android applications.
If malicious code is detected in an app, either a warning will be shown or in the most high-risk of cases the installation will be blocked entirely.
If the application is likely to be malicious, a warning message will be displayed on the screen. For applications known to be malicious, installation will be blocked entirely.
As an alternative, consider installing a dedicated anti-virus app. Dedicated apps have several advantages over Google’s cloud-based service. Firstly, they can scan files in your phone’s SD card or internet download folder. Malicious apps can be removed from your phone even before you try to install them. Also, dedicated applications work on a larger range of devices including those without access to Google’s cloud-based scanner. Dedicated apps can also have additional security features such as the ability to track your phone remotely. In terms of downside, anti-virus apps can slow down your phone and can also reduce the battery life of your smartphone.
AV-Test.org carries out a regular study of Android anti-virus apps. According to their most recent report, the following apps score the highest for effectiveness and usability:
For a full analysis on the effectiveness of Android anti-virus apps, please refer to the latest report from AV-Test.org.
As with the iPhone, Windows Phone doesn’t support anti-virus apps. Instead, you should rely on Microsoft’s app approval process and also your personal judgement about the apps you download. Applications can only be installed from the Windows Phone Marketplace.
With our smartphones now containing more personal data than ever before, many people have begun to worry about the possibility of getting viruses on their smartphone. Because of the way smartphones are designed, it’s not always necessary to use anti-virus software. Instead, it’s much more important to keep an eye on permissions and to know the symptoms of a malicious behaviour app. For an extra layer of protection, Android users can consider an anti-virus app. For many, it’s possible to get by with Google’s cloud-based scanner. As an alternative, dedicated apps contain more functionality.
Do you use anti-virus on your smartphone? If so, which anti-virus app is currently your favourite? We’d love to hear your thoughts: please drop us a comment below and let us know what you think!
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