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Your smartphone is a computer in your pocket, and it often contains just as much private data. All of your emails, location history, web history and app usage are likely accessible through the device on your pocket. This makes it well worth protecting, but the threats you should worry about extend beyond.

Viruses Exist

Since a smartphone is like a computer, it is vulnerable to similar security threats. Malware can be used to monitor data transferred on a phone The Rise Of Smartphone Snooping & How To Check For It The Rise Of Smartphone Snooping & How To Check For It Snooping on computers has been a problem for decades. But snooping on a PC is an accepted risk, and one users often look out for. But what about your smartphone? Smartphones transmit location data and... Read More , hijack specific data (like credit card numbers) or simply corrupt apps and generally make your life difficult. There are millions of potential threats in existence, and while most are unlikely to cross your path, the risk is higher than you might have guessed.

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Smartphone viruses also emulate their PC brethren in the way they spread; anyway they can. They can arrive via text message, through a web attack that exploits vulnerabilities in your web browser, or through an exploit in your phone’s networking capabilities. This is why, as is true with PCs, the advice of “just don’t download a virus, dummy,” doesn’t always work.

No Platform Is Immune, Though Some Are Better Than Others

The operating system your smartphone runs has a significant impact on the threats you must be concerned with. Android, which is the most popular and most open, is predictably the least secure Do You Need an Antivirus on an Android Phone? [Geeks Weigh In] Do You Need an Antivirus on an Android Phone? [Geeks Weigh In] Read More . This isn’t entirely Google’s fault, as it’s effectively become the Windows of the smartphone world. Everyone targets Android because it offers the largest pool of potential victims.

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Apple’s iOS is more secure because it is more tightly controlled. The company rigorously oversees the app store, does not allow the installation of apps from any alternative source, and closely integrates the operating system with its hardware. While security flaws have been found in iOS there have been no confirmed reports of an in-the-wild virus (though there have been a few apps that behaved badly, albeit within the confines of the permissions given to them). With that said, jailbreaking your iOS device and using “unauthorized” apps opens you to a variety of potential threats.

BlackBerry viruses have been reported, though they’re not particularly common, and Windows Phone has yet to fall victim to a virus. That may change, however, if the operating system becomes more popular.

Security Apps Aren’t Always Worth Their Title

All of this doom and gloom is likely to send you screaming towards the nearest security app, but be careful. Not all security apps work equally well, and not all of them actually protect you.

Android users can make an informed decision about the antivirus they use by viewing the latest reports from AV Test and AV Comparatives. These organizations compare antivirus solutions by throwing a collection of malware at each app. Established names like Kaspersky, Bitdefender and Avast! often win these contests, but some lesser-known companies like ESET and AhnLab have scored well, too.

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BlackBerry and Windows Phone users, however, have no such scores to go by. Users on these platforms should play it safe and stick to apps from companies that have a proven track record in Windows and Android.

Most antivirus apps do what they say, but not all of them work equally well. AV Test’s last round-up found that two entries, VIRUSfighter Antivirus Pro and Zoner AntiVirus, let through at least a quarter of all threats. These aren’t unpopular apps; both of them have four-star rankings on Google Play and Zoner has been recommended over 20,000 times on Google Plus.

And then, of course, there are the inevitable fakes. In April of 2014 a new antivirus app called Virus Shield appeared with a price of $4 and rose to the top of the paid apps list. Just one problem; it didn’t actually do anything. Though eventually removed, over 10,000 users downloaded it before it was taken down.

The moral of the story? Do your research and don’t fall for spanking-new security apps that promise perfect security.

A Lost Phone Can Be Worse Than A Virus

Worrying about malware can keep your attention locked on just one problem, however. There’s another issue that’s just a disconcerting, and far more likely; the loss of your phone, either accidentally or because it was stolen.

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A phone in a stranger’s hands opens you to all the security issues we’ve already touched on. Everything stored on your phone can be accessed, from your saved credit cards to your email inbox, no virus required, and anti-virus can’t do a thing to protect you.

What can protect you is preemptive action. Place a lock on your phone Improve Your Android Lock Screen Security With These 5 Tips Improve Your Android Lock Screen Security With These 5 Tips You're perhaps reading this thinking "hah, no thanks MakeUseOf, my Android is secured with a lock screen pattern – my phone is impregnable!" Read More . Backup your data How to Backup Your Android Phone Logs and SMS to Google Drive Spreadsheets How to Backup Your Android Phone Logs and SMS to Google Drive Spreadsheets The new IFTTT for Android will automatically store them forever in your Google Drive. Read More . And make sure you’re aware of the tools available for remotely wiping your phone Remotely Erase Data From Your Stolen Phone using Lookout Remotely Erase Data From Your Stolen Phone using Lookout Read More if it goes missing. Waiting until after your phone is already missing may be too late, so don’t hesitate to familiarize yourself with your smartphone’s security. The process only takes a few minutes.

Where There’s Data, There’s Risk

Keeping your phone secure is now a complex, multistage process. That’s unfortunate, but also inevitable given their expanding capabilities. Where there’s data, there will be someone who wants to obtain it, often through illegitimate means.

The good news is that all smartphone manufacturers have become wise to the problem in short order, so most modern devices offer backup, remote wipe and lock features by default. You’ll also find that there’s a wide variety of effective antivirus solutions The 3 Best Antivirus Apps To Protect Your Android Security The 3 Best Antivirus Apps To Protect Your Android Security As we’ve reported frequently at MakeUseOf, Android is no longer safe from malware. The number of threats is on the rise. This shouldn’t be surprise to anyone. Smartphones and tablets can carry all sorts of... Read More , some of which are absolutely free. While certainly worth a bit of worry, smartphones are still easier, and less expensive, to protect than a PC.

Hopefully that remains true in the future.

Image Credit: McAfee Security Solutions, Joe Goldberg via Flickr

  1. Thomas Weatherly
    June 19, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    I have transferred my paranoia from desktop computers to smartphone and tablet computers which are rooted, but with locked bootloaders, some features which may be attack vectors, such as telnet, SSH, net cat, ping , package manager, and others blocked or disabled. I have Webroot SecureAnywhere Complete which protects several desktops and mobile devices in the family, Bluebox Heartbleed scanner, Bluebox Scanner, Belarc Security Advisor, XPrivacy, and I use two factor authentication app for Gmail and Hotmail. If you have a rooted Android, the minimum I recommend an antivirus, Lookout has good free one, Belarc Security Advisors whichs scans for structual exploits, and XPrivacy which controls permissions of apps in an unusual and effective way. The first two, an antivirus and Belarch work on on unrooted Android phone. I have regularly scheduled Nandroid backups, and backups by Titanium.I use apps from Google Play Store, but also from Amazon and Fdroid. Fdroid repositories of apps has a better safety record than Google and Amazon.

  2. M.D.
    June 18, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Windows Phone was ignored one more time.

  3. Godel
    June 17, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    The only Android version affected is 4.1.1.

    http://mashable.com/2014/04/11/devices-running-android-4-1-1-vulnerable-to-heartbleed/ and many other articles.

    If you've got one of these then you are probably SOL.

    I suppose you might make a case that the device was not "fit for purpose" at the time of sale and demand a refund under consumer law, or in Small Claims Court.

    Good luck with that. :-)

  4. priscillia
    June 17, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    Nice read and eye opening.
    I use a blackberry and an android os. I have no anti virus installed on my android because I cared less. Thank God I read this article, i'll def be downloading an antivirus soon

  5. Ashwin D
    June 17, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Windows Phone is super secure too! In fact it can be much more secure than IOS

  6. ReadandShare
    June 17, 2014 at 5:25 am

    A smart phone is not like a computer. It is a computer! And it will get much more powerful in the years ahead.

    Personal computers have been evolving from desktop size to lap top and now to hand held and wearable. -- in other words, getting ever more personal.

    So yes, agree with author that we need to take the same precautions.

  7. Howard Blair
    June 16, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    What I'd like to know is how to patch the HeartBleed bug on Android; nobody seems to care about the HeartBleed bug on consumer devices, only on Web servers.

    • Mark P
      June 16, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      Well the Heartbleed bug only affected services using OpenSSL, which is more prevalent in web servers. Unless your android apps use OpenSSL, then the heartbleed bug did not affect them in any way, and the mobile websites it did effect have most likely been patched at the same time the main site was patched.

    • Howard Blair
      June 17, 2014 at 8:10 pm

      Check the Heartbleed Security Scanner

      https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.lookout.heartbleeddetector

      (There are several others out there). Android uses OpenSSL for *its* side of any SSL connections, which means malware on an infected server, or SSL connections through an infected router or hotspot, are vulnerable to a Heartbleed attack, and any affected Android device *should* be patched (any version before 4.4, IIRC).

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