It’s 2017: Do Android Phones Still Need An Antivirus App?

Android phone in red light virus like photo
Android phone in red light virus like photo

Earlier this year, Android finally managed to take over Windows as Pakistan’s most popular operating system. When it comes to desktop computers though, Microsoft’s OS still has the lion’s share of our local market. Most of us have been using Windows since childhood, and it was our first proper introduction to “computers”. This is why a majority of Pakistani tech users view most modern gadgets through the lens of Windows features and functionality. While Windows certainly has a lot going for it, one thing that has always plagued this OS is malware.

Antivirus software has always thrived in the Windows environment, and people are used to having some sort of protection enabled on their computer at all times. This mindset manifests itself in most people even when they are using their smartphone. Being a self-proclaimed tech geek, a lot of my friends and relatives repeatedly ask me which antivirus they should use on their smartphone. The question is mostly asked by Android users since iOS is generally considered virus-free.

The Case For Antivirus Apps On Android

On Android, there is no definitive answer to the question, as the need for having an antivirus varies with each person’s usage habits and the device in use. If pressed for a one-word reply, it might be a safe bet to tell someone that given that they use their phone sensibly, they might get by without an antivirus installed on the device. Having said that, there is a reason a lot of effective antivirus apps are available in the Play Store.

The thing that makes Android vulnerable to external attacks is the fact that the OS has historically been open source, and a lot of users prefer rooting their device to get rid of limitations imposed by OEMs and Google to keep things in control. By definition, rooting a device makes it more vulnerable to external attacks and malware, despite all the bells & whistles you get access to. If you have a rooted device, having an antivirus might be worthwhile.

Another thing that goes against Android’s security is the variety of devices available in the market, all with their particular flavor of the OS. When there are so many different variants to take into account, with thousands of developers rolling out all sort of apps, it will be naïve to think that everything available in the Play Store is safe to use. Then there is all the software that you can voluntarily or inadvertently install from sources other than the Play Store. Even though Google keeps rolling out security updates with regularity, even they themselves agree that Android is vulnerable and there is room for improvement. Just last month, the Xavier malware was found to have infected 800 Play Store apps, with the potential to steal your data and install APKs without any warning. You get the brunt of these threats if you have a rooted device, though.

The Case Against Android Antivirus Apps

Despite the irrefutable presence of malware targeted at Android users, an average user doesn’t have much to worry about. Unless you intentionally go looking for trouble or run into an extraordinary bout of bad luck, your phone should remain unaffected by all viruses out there. Of course, the threat of malware is ever-increasing but for now, all counter-measures taken by Google and OEMs are enough to ward off almost all potential problems. It is safe to say that common sense should be an Android user’s best (and probably only) antivirus.

There are still ways your device can get messed up if you are not careful though. For example, pirated content often comes with malware, if not then through ads that can infect your phone gradually. Despite this threat, non-rooted Android devices always show a warning to users when they try to install apps from unverified sources. If you have rooted your Android, it is likely that you are tech-savvy and know an infected file when you see one.

The question arises; why take the risk? If you can have an antivirus and stop being on your guard, what’s the harm in having it installed on your phone even if you won’t need it? Well, an antivirus can do more harm than good for most people. Here is how:

  1. A particularly heavy app that constantly runs in the background is likely to make your phone slower, especially if you are using a medium-range (or lesser) device.
  2. False positives are another significant issue, which might render some legitimate apps unusable and are quite a pain in the neck.
  3. Just like slowing down your phone, most antivirus apps have the tendency to negatively impact the device’s battery life.

What You Can Do To Keep Your Device Safe Without An Antivirus

  1. Before installing a relatively unknown app (even from Play Store) try and reading its reviews. Similarly, avoid installing apps that you see after mistakenly clicking an ad.
  2. If you think you won’t be able to be on your guard later, avoid rooting the phone.
  3. Avoid installing pirated apps. If you are installing APKs from external sources, make sure they come from a reputable repository.
  4. Don’t click on links sent in spam emails, or fishy-looking links sent in instant messages. If you have an un-rooted device, in almost all cases even a dangerous link will only generate a warning and won’t be able to do considerable harm to your device.
  5. Always keep your apps and mobile OS up to date. Companies often roll out updates to patch security threats.

What it ultimately boils down to is your own peace of mind. If you feel confident in your abilities to keep your device safe and are sure that your OEM is up to speed with malware threats, then there is no need to install an antivirus. If you don’t feel safe though, go for a lightweight antivirus that will be suitable for your device.