Do you really need Android antivirus?

Many Windows security vendors offer companion apps for smartphones and tablets. But if you’re using an iPhone or an iPad, you don’t really have much to worry about. Thanks to iOS’ heavily locked-down security model, there’s never been a major virus outbreak on the platform.

On Android, things are less clear-cut. Its open design is inherently more exploitable than iOS – but what you may not realise is that Android comes with a number of smart built-in security measures.

For a start, Android makes it impossible for any app to be installed without your explicit permission. That immediately limits the danger from “drive-by downloads” – if an installation alert pops up out of the blue, you can simply cancel it and carry on. Indeed, by default, you can only install apps directly from the Play Store, which means they’ve been vetted by Google. The approvals process isn’t perfect, but unless you’re constantly downloading little-known games and entertainment apps, it’s unlikely that anything harmful will end up on your system.

What’s more, even if you do somehow get infected, Android already has a basic virus scanner of its own that’s constantly running in the background. Google Play Protect periodically checks all your installed apps, and warns you of any known threats or suspicious behaviour, so you’ll be alerted as soon as an exploit comes to light. You can check out your own Play Protect status by opening the Settings apps and going to Google | Security | Google Play Protect.

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Should you worry about Android antivirus?

While Android security is better than most people realise, it’s still not watertight. If you’re using an Amazon Fire device, or if you’ve chosen to allow the installation of apps from unknown sources, you don’t get the full benefit of Android’s built-in protections. If you’ve rooted your device to make it more customisable then that opens a path for malware to bypass the built-in security restrictions.

And the truth is that malware can still sometimes slip through the net. In September, security researchers Check Point found an attack dubbed “ExpensiveWall”, which silently signed infected users up to pricey premium SMS services. The malicious code was tacked onto several trusted Play Store apps, using compression and encryption to conceal its malicious intent. It’s estimated that the malware eventually ended up on more than 5,000 Android devices before it was blocked.

Even then, though, there were red flags. Google Play users quickly spotted that something was up, and began to leave reviews in the store warning that the app had been compromised. And if you missed that, there was still one last line of defence to overcome: Android apps require your explicit authorisation to send text messages. Unfortunately, nowadays we’ve got so used to apps demanding all sorts of permissions that most users probably tapped “Allow” without thinking about it.

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What can be done about Android antivirus?

At the Structure Security conference in San Francisco in September, Adrian Ludwig, head of Android security at Google, estimated that around 0.25% of Android’s two billion users had been infected by malware. If you get your apps from Google Play, don’t root your phone, and pay attention to reviews and permission requests, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll fall into that tiny group.

If you’re worried about a smartphone that you use for highly sensitive tasks, however, or if you’re setting up a handset for a less technical relative who is likely to download lots of apps, then third-party security apps can provide an extra degree of reassurance.

As with Windows antivirus tools, it’s hard to know which to choose. Obviously you want one that does a good job of spotting new threats – but you don’t want an overactive scanner that will run down your battery, or an intrusive app that constantly pesters you with ads.

Helpfully, alongside its extensive Windows testing, AV-Comparatives compiles periodic tests of Android anti-malware apps. Their results test a selection of popular Android security apps against 4,081 malware samples. According to their tests, Bitdefender, McAfee, Tencent and Trend Micro hit 100% coverage. Avast and Alibaba come just 0.1% under them and Kaspersky and Eset just 0.1% below those.

So, whatever you pick, you’re better off using another antivirus app than simply relying upon Android’s built-in protection all the time.

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