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.
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, 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. Backup your data. And make sure you’re aware of the tools available for remotely wiping your phone 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, 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.