For years, we’ve heard about viruses, malware, hacking, and other nefarious forms of digital “hijacking.” These are buzzwords for danger; we know that these things can ruin a computer, steal personal information, or cause general poor performance on a device.
Most of the time, we associate these threats with laptops and PC’s, but what about our mobile devices? Are these equally at risk of becoming infected with malware? Do mobile devices require the same antivirus protection as a PC?
Today, we’re diving into that topic, to determine exactly what you should be doing to keep your phone safe. The first question to ask is this:
Can your mobile phone get a virus?
Before worrying about how to protect a phone, we need to know if our phones are even subject to the same concerns. This is especially important given that, for many of us, the majority of our online activities take place via mobile. While laptops still are heavily used, mobile device use has skyrocketed in the past several years. These devices are our lifelines.
So, can your mobile phone get a virus? Technically, the answer is yes. Both Android devices and iPhones have occasionally been subject to viruses, but this is extremely rare and is based on very specific circumstances. For instance, cases of iPhone viruses have been highly isolated, and tend to only be a threat to devices that have been jailbroken. (Very few of us own jailbroken devices, and if you’re not sure what the term means, and you’ve purchased your phone from a reputable retailer, it’s safe to assume your phone has not been jailbroken).
Both Android and Apple phones are designed in a way that prevents viruses from becoming problematic, largely because they work differently from personal computers. We’ll see more on that below.
This article from Lifewire explains very clearly why viruses are not a serious threat to iPhones:
“Viruses are programs that are designed to do malicious things — like stealing your data or taking over your computer — and spread themselves to other computers. In order to do achieve its purpose, the virus must run on the device and communicate with other programs to get their data or control them.
The iOS architecture doesn't let apps do these things. Apple designed iOS so that every app runs in its own, restricted virtual space. Apps enjoy limited abilities to communicate with each other, but by restricting the ways apps interact with each other and with the operating system itself, Apple has reduced the risk of viruses on the iPhone.”
Android devices can also become virus-infected, but again, this is quite rare. In the uncommon cases when Android viruses have made news headlines, it is the result of suspicious apps that somehow ended up on the Google Play market. When users download such an app, viruses may be hidden that are inadvertently installed on the device, along with the app itself. As soon as any incidents like this are reported, Google removes the app from its store. Such occurrences are rare and Google remains on top of it, but this is another reason why it’s so important to only download apps from reputable sources.
Unlike iPhone, which only allows the installation of apps from the iTunes store, on Android, users have the ability to download apps from other sources in addition to the Google Play Store. This is called “sideloading apps,” and it is when the potential for malware and viruses is far more likely to occur. However, while Android does grant users this freedom, the capabilities are disabled by default on all devices. So, out of the box, an Android device is largely protected from viruses and malware because the phones feature a locked bootloader and disabled sideloading. Again, if you’re not planning to try to change these inbuilt features, your risk for encountering viruses is extremely minimal.
Your phone’s built-in protections
We’ve now seen that viruses represent a negligible threat to our mobile devices. Instead, what we need to worry about---albeit only slightly more---is other types of malware.
Malware is short for “malicious software” and includes various forms such as including spyware, ransomware, Trojan horses, worms, adware, or any type of malicious code that infiltrates a computer.
Developers are keenly aware of these threats, however, and modern operating systems are designed with security in mind. Today’s mobile devices offer a fair amount of protection that comes built into the phone’s OS. These features may not be 100% effective, but they do ensure that your phone is largely safe from pernicious software.
These features are tools like Google Play Protect, which can run a safety check on apps from the Google Play Store before you download them. It can also provide a general scan of your device to see if you have any malware or potentially dangerous apps installed.
The regular updates from both Apple and Android also do a fair amount to keep your phone working its best and risk-free. This is why it is very important to keep up with those software updates.
All this being said, you can still choose to instal security apps if you’d like to. There are a number of these that users can choose from. While they can offer you additional peace of mind when it comes to defence against viruses, many of these apps offer other features that make them beneficial.
Android has some antivirus apps that are recommended:
Avast Mobile Security
Avast’s mobile security app provides more than mere scanning tools. Even in the free version of the app, you’ll get a firewall and a call blocker (avoid those unwanted and unknown numbers). There’s also an anti-theft feature that is super helpful in the event your phone is stolen or gets lost. Through this feature, you can remotely lock the device or wipe it of all data.
There’s another unique aspect of this app, but it’s a premium feature that you’ll have to pay for. This is called ‘in-app locking’ and requires you to input a PIN before certain apps will open up. This is ideal in a malware situation that attempts to automatically open apps with sensitive personal information (such as your banking app). It’s also another failsafe in the possibility your phone is stolen.
Bitdefender is well known for being a high-quality name in the security realm. They have a free antivirus app that won’t slow down your device. Since it doesn’t run in the background, it won’t drain your battery. You simply run manual scans with the app (or schedule them) to check that your phone is free of malware. You can also sign up for extra features. Bitdefender Mobile Security includes the basic antivirus as well as real-time protection for Google's Chrome browser and anti-theft features.
Technically, the Apple Store does not have any strict antivirus apps, but there are security apps that could be useful. One of these is Kaspersky Security Cloud for iOS. This offers helpful security enhancements, such as a built-in VPN (virtual private network). If your device is online via an unsecured connection, the VPN will activate itself automatically. The Kaspersky Security Cloud also provides notifications about relevant security incidents and a tool that checks for weak settings.
What you really need to do to keep your phone safe
Using additional security apps can be a good idea. Although these aren’t focused on virus protection, they can protect against other methods where danger is prevalent. For instance, a password manager can help you to create and store super-secure passwords for your various logins.
Many tech experts agree that theft is actually a greater threat to your mobile device than a virus. For this reason, be sure that you’ve taken steps to protect against a lost or stolen device. We’ve got some resources for you here:
Ultimately, the number one thing you can do to keep your device safe is to be cautious and alert with your own online actions. Only get your apps from official stores. Don’t download software from unfamiliar or dodgy sources and always pause before clicking a link from a suspicious email, text message, or app message. Your own vigilance could make the difference.