It seems like you can’t go a week without one security firm or another producing a statistic illustrating just how much Android malware there is in the wilds of the internet. More often than not, these reports come with a few reminders that the company’s own security suite can protect you from these nasty bits of code, which is true some of the time. However, Android is by its very nature more secure than a desktop computer, so maybe you don’t need these security apps. You’ve probably already got what you need.
The most recent Android malware report comes from Check Point, which says nearly one billion android devices have critical vulnerabilities in the underlying Linux kernel. Shocking and upsetting, right? It’s a legitimate security issue, but the reporting is, as usual, overly breathless and dramatic. The PR certainly makes it seem like your phone is ripe for infection, but the real situation is much more nuanced.
The latest QuadRooter scare is actually a set of four issues known as CVE-2016-2059, CVE-2016-2504, CVE-2016-2503, and CVE-2016-5340. They are rooted in the Linux system code provided by Qualcomm to partners like Google. The way this is presented by many mainstream reports, you’d think Google is in panic mode and rushing out patches. In fact, the Android security model is much more mature now. Several of these vulnerabilities are already patched in the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), and the others will be soon. As OEMs build new updates, they’ll include updated patch levels, which you can see in your software info.
We’ve all been programmed by PC malware, which can sneak onto your system simply because you visited the wrong website with a vulnerable browser. These “drive-by downloads” aren’t feasible on Android without a pre-existing infection. On Android, you have to physically tap on a notification to install an APK downloaded from a source outside the Play Store. Even then there are security settings that need to be manually bypassed.
What if a QuadRooter app were to make it into the Play Store before then? Google’s platform has the ability to scan for known malware when it’s uploaded. There’s also a human review process in place for anything that looks even a little bit questionable. Google just started doing this a few months ago, mainly as a way to keep copycat apps and obvious scams from slipping through the cracks.
The solution pushed by AV companies is to install a security suite that manually scans every app, monitors your Web traffic, and so on. These apps tend to be a drain on resources and are generally annoying with plentiful notifications and pop ups. You probably don’t need to install Lookout, AVG, Symantec/Norton, or any of the other AV apps on Android. Instead, there are some completely reasonable steps you can take that won’t drag down your phone. For example, your phone already has antivirus protection built-in.
Your first line of defense is to simply not mess around with Android’s default security settings. To get Google certification, each and every phone and tablet comes with “Unknown sources” disabled in the security settings. If you want to sideload an APK downloaded from outside Google Play, all you need to do is check that box. Leaving this disabled keeps you safe from virtually all Android malware, because there’s almost none of it in the Play Store.
There are legitimate reasons to allow unknown sources, though. For example, Amazon’s Appstore client sideloads the apps and games you buy, and many reputable sites re-host official app updates that are rolling out in stages so you don’t have to wait your turn. If you do take advantage of this feature, the first time you do so a box will pop up asking you to allow Google to scan for malicious activity. This is known as Verify Apps and it’s part of Google Play Services on virtually all official Android phones. Google has confirmed that QuadRooter is detected and disabled by Verify Apps. So, even if your device is lagging on security updates, you shouldn’t have to worry.
Users have been rooting their Android phones ever since the first handsets hit the market, but it’s less common these days. The platform offers many of the features people used to root in order to acquire. Using rooted Android is basically like running a computer in administrator mode. While it’s possible to run a rooted phone safely, it’s definitely a security risk. Some exploits and malware needs root access to function, and otherwise it’s harmless even if you do somehow install it. If you don’t have a good reason to root your phone or tablet, just don’t open yourself up to that possibility.
Android apps also exist that might not be “malware” per se, but you might not want them on your phone because they snoop through your data. Most people don’t read the permissions for the apps they install, but the Play Store does make all that information available. As of Android 6.0, apps need to request access to sensitive permissions like access to your contacts, local storage, microphone, camera, and location tracking. If an app has reason to access these modules (like a social networking app), you’re probably fine. If, however, a flashlight app is asking for your contact list, you might want to think again. The system settings include the tools to manually revoke permissions for any app.
It really just takes a tiny bit of common sense to avoid Android malware. If you do nothing else, keeping your downloads limited to the Play Store and other 100% trustworthy sources will keep you safe from almost all threats out there. The antivirus apps are at best redundant and at worst a detriment to your system performance.