There are, of course, two major smartphone platforms available today. One is the buttoned-down iPhone, which is aggressively kept under control by Apple. The other is Android, Google’s free-for-all operating system that is used by numerous phones with relatively little oversight from the big Google in the sky. Android’s open-ended nature is great for tech-heads who want to muck about with their phones, but if you’re in this group you may also be wondering if the open-ended nature of Android puts it at risk for a virus.
Android Influenza? Yes, It Exists!
“No,” you may be thinking. “Android can’t get a virus. The applications are screened before they’re put up on the Android market, right?”
Eh..well, not really. Remember openness? Google means it, and as a result Android apps do not go through an approval process. Any third party developer can upload whatever they want so long as the app conforms to some loose pre-defined guidelines set down by Google. There is no official barrier that can stop malware, and indeed, malware for Android already exists.
First Tech Credit Union issued a warning in January 2010 about an Android app that was posing as an online banking interface, but was in fact malware designed to steal usernames and passwords. More recently, an app on the Russian Android app market was found to contain a virus that spammed SMS messages to specific phone numbers, resulting in huge phone bills for those infected.
The argument about the existence of Android malware is already over. It has already been invented, which should hardly be a surprise - why wouldn’t seedy characters use an unrestricted app store to spread malware?
Android Antivirus Protection
Where there are viruses, there is fear. This is true in the digital world as it is the real world. Now that the first few pieces of Android malware have been confirmed, antivirus companies have sprung into action, offering a wide range of antivirus programs. These apps are often have a free version available that displays advertisements, making it rather easy to download protection for your Android phone.
Unfortunately, the mere existence of these Android antivirus apps is no reason to relax, as there are a number of problems, perhaps the largest of which is the lack of research about viruses on mobile phones. There is no mobile-oriented version of AV-Comparatives doing detailed research into the effectiveness of antivirus solutions. Even sites like CNET have yet to provide useful information about these apps. It’s possible that these antivirus apps are completely ineffective – no one has done enough research to know otherwise.
And, of course, the openness of the Android app store can be abused. Windows has long been plagued by malware disguising itself as free antivirus software. Unsuspecting users download it, infect their PCs, and then do nothing more to monitor their security because they believe the fake antivirus program has it covered. Android is also open to this abuse.
So if antivirus apps aren’t known to be effective, what can you do? Monitor your permissions very closely. This seems to be Google’s official line in regards to malware, and they do have a point. When installing an app you can see what the app wants to access. If a media player app wants to send SMS messages, for example, that should set off alarm bells. However, the idea that such protection is sufficient is rather arrogant – eventually someone will find a flaw in Android’s code that lets an app bypass the permission process.
The truth of Android is this – it’s a jungle out there. This goes for all other smartphones as well. These devices are obviously juicy targets for malware, and there is not yet sufficient security in place to protect them. The good news is that these devices are relatively young, and it takes some time for malware to be programmed. The bad news is that those seeking to spread malware usually figure out how to do so – it just takes time.
This is not unlike the state of personal computers in the late 80s and early 90s, when viruses were becoming common but antivirus protection was rare and its effectiveness often difficult to judge. Users had little recourse against malware – avoiding it was simply a matter of avoiding suspicious programs and crossing your fingers. Users of all smartphones should beware – these clever pocket PCs are not immune. Don’t do anything with your smartphone that you wouldn’t do with your home computer.