Why Android Anti-Malware Apps Are a Good Idea

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As malware attacks on Android devices are becoming more frequent, it just might be time to install an anti-virus app on your phone or tablet.

Having an anti-virus application on PCs is pretty much a given. Not many people would venture around the Internet without some kind of digital protection installed on their computer. Why then do those same people have no qualms about traversing the Internet using their unprotected smartphone or tablet?

Or what about those who religiously load anti-malware apps on their tablets and smartphones, only to realize the app isn't catching anything? Especially when those apps drain precious battery hours.

A Perfect Storm

A perfect storm may be brewing in malware as several conditions come together in the mobile-computing world. Gartner predicts that the number of Android phones sold will approach one billion in 2014. That captures the bad guys’ attention as their return on investment improves. Couple that with the fact that most mobile-device owners feel anti-malware apps are a waste of time, and it becomes easy to see why malware's on the rise.

The rapidly increasing number of Android smartphones coupled with significant user apathy are not the only things contributing to Android’s perfect storm. Those who pay attention to active mobile-device malware have noticed malware developers are focusing a lion’s share of their attention on the Android operating system. F-Secure's Mobile Threat Report Q1 2014 mentions that researchers found 275 new threats targeting Android mobile devices, compared to just one for iOS and one for Symbian.

percentage of malware that allows attackers to make money

The F-Secure report also adds validity to the contention that bad guys are looking to improve their return on investment. Almost 90 percent of the 275 threats against Android mobile devices included a method for attackers to make money off their victims. One example included sending SMS messages at a premium rate – unbeknownst to the mobile device’s owner, of course. Then there's Android ransomware such as Koler, which demands $300 to unlock a victim’s mobile device. (Learn more in PowerLocker: How Hackers Can Hold Your Files for Ransom.)

Why Anti-Malware Might Be in Order

A big reason Android device owners skip using an anti-malware app is that Google, in creating Android, introduced several features that reduce the attack surface visible to malware. However, that does not help when the attack involves social engineering. This is where anti-malware applications come into play. For example, within days of learning of Koler, all of the major mobile anti-malware products were detecting it, and if need be, informing owners to delete the offending application containing Koler.


Which Product to Use?

Which product is a good question. There is a dizzying array of free and paid Android anti-malware products on the market, and each vendor is adamant that its product is the best. Fortunately, there are independent test labs that help interested parties make an informed decision. These labs capture copies of Android malware in the wild, run tests using the captured malware against the Android anti-malware products, and publish how well the applications protect plus any issues they find.

One such test lab is AV-Test GmbH. I had a chance to talk to Andreas Marx, CEO of AV-Test GmbH, about the company. According to Marx, "AV-Test GmbH focuses on the detection and analysis of the latest malicious software and its use in comprehensive comparative testing of security products."

One of the byproducts of AV-Test’s research is a quarterly report that publishes the test results for many of the major Android anti-malware applications.

AV-Test report on anti-malware products

And what about free versions? I asked Marx if there was any real difference between the free versions and purchased. Marx said that when it came down to detecting Android malware, there wasn’t. But the purchased versions may interest people because of added features such as locating the device, and having the ability to lock the mobile device if it is stolen.


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Michael Kassner

Michael Kassner is a veteran reporter of technology, wordsmith, and founder of MKassner Net (LLC).