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Virus is a scary word, you certainly don’t want to be infected by one so why would you want your phone to catch one. With smartphones being considered by many to be pocket computers, it’s a sensible suggestion that phones may be prone to the same infections that PCs are famous for. How likely is this and how useful are these ‘Anti-Virus’ apps you see for your phone?
Look on the Android market and you will see a plethora of apps dedicated to fighting the virus menace. However those inside Google have blasted these app developers as “charlatans and scammers”, selling software that offers no real protection and any protection it did offer would be for naught as there is no real threat to smart phones.
However it would be wise for Google to push the idea of viruses away from their brand as it isn’t very positive. What can’t be escaped though is the knowledge that smartphone and tablet use is growing and PC and Laptop growth is slowing. Scammers and virus writers obviously want their exploit on as many devices as possible, so they will or have already begun to look at smartphones and tablets. With Android and iOS having the largest market share by far, they will find themselves the centre of potential attack. Windows Mobile and Blackberry users may find safety simply due to obscurity.
It is important to note exactly what a virus is to determine whether they are a potential issue. A computer virus is a self replicating program that can spread itself from host to host and will make unauthorised changes to the computer’s programming. Years ago this was a huge problem for Windows PCs due to two things: -
- Microsoft’s overwhelming market share,
- User were able to make changes to the normal OS environment without any prompt or permission, this in turn allowed third party programs to make changes without the user’s knowledge.
Later iterations of Windows now require the user to accept via prompt any changes to the OS, but of course many people refuse to read the prompts and simply accept without question. The iPhone is a heavily locked down device and any changes to iOS is almost impossible without jailbreaking the phone first and although Android is known for its open nature, access to system files, or root access, is still virtually impossible without first unlocking your phone. Most users will not jailbreak or unlock their phones as they’ve no practical need for or even knowledge of it as discussed in a previous article. This itself makes smartphones and tablets inherently more secure than computers. However exploits can be discovered that gives a program the access it requires to make changes to the OS, it is these exploits that allow users to jailbreak and root their phones.
However viruses do not seem to be the issue but rather what is known as malware apps. These apps will disguise themselves as another more eye catching app, such as a game or the chance undress your favourite celebrity. These apps may then require access to your phone book, or require the ability to make phone calls and send text messages. The app could then send messages to your friends purporting to be you telling them to install this fantastic app, allowing the app to ‘spread’. At the same time this app could be ringing or sending texts to premium rate numbers costing you money. Another potential exploit is the availability of alternative on-screen keyboards. They could be logging your every entry as you type, which may include credit card numbers. Then if the app is allowed, send the log to the hacker via email.
Android is arguably the more open of the two platforms as side-loading apps is not against Google policy and the market has less safeguards than Apple’s App Store as I went into in a previous article. Apps available on smartphones can be given a huge amount of access to your phone including: reading contact info, reading SMS messages and even sending SMS messages. Identity theft could potentially be a problem. Google’s Market will tell you what permissions an app requires before you install it and even when you bypass the market and sideload an app, the phone will tell you prior to installation what permissions are required. You should read these and ask yourself why a simple game app needs full access to the internet and access to my contacts? Unfortunately people are programmed to click ‘Yes’, ‘OK’ and ‘Accept’ when prompted by a computer without actually reading the prompt. Close attention to detail and knowledge of where your app came from are key.
But at the end of the day these are not strictly virus infections as they are not altering the OS. Virus infections on a smartphone or tablet do exist but are rare due to the lockdown nature of the devices. People wishing to gain sensitive information from phone users will find that creating apps that disguise themselves as another app is a much easier and lucrative option. Anti-virus apps will not protect you from this and in some cases may be viruses or malware apps themselves! Vigilance and common sense will be your saviour in this sense.
Read any security prompt thoroughly, know where the app has come from and do not be afraid to say ‘No’ from time to time if you don’t like what the app has access too, it just might save your virtual life!