Android app security basics: Easy ways to keep your phone safe

android safety antivirus

We’ve been exploring the topic of Android security over the last week. We kicked off with a look at the top Android security apps and found that they generally offer a package of features beyond antivirus protection. That is possibly just as well since the necessity of antivirus apps on Android is still unproven as we discussed in Do you need antivirus on Android?

Malware is undoubtedly a threat to Android device owners but it is packaged in apps and updates that you must choose to install. If you’re careful and you do a little research then you can avoid inadvertently downloading something harmful. Below are some basic tips to keep your Android phone safe and secure.

android app security basics unknown sourcesAvoid unknown sources

You have the option of installing Android apps and games from sources other than Google Play (sometimes known as sideloading). The problem is that many third-party app stores are not safe. If you choose to download an APK file and install it yourself, you could be putting malware on your device. You may also be sent an APK file in an email or a text message, or you could be prompted to install one after clicking on a link in your web browser. It’s best not to install these unless you are certain it is safe.

To safeguard against inadvertent installation, make sure that the ability to install apps from unknown sources is turned off.

This is generally off by default but it is worth checking. In Android 4.0 and above, go to Settings > Security and make sure Unknown sources is disabled. In previous versions of Android, hit Settings > Applications to ensure the Unknown sources box is not ticked.

If you use the Amazon App Store, or perhaps you need to sideload an app for your work, then you can always go ahead and tick the Unknown sources box to allow installation to proceed and then disable it again. Just ensure that it is off by default to prevent you from inadvertently installing something dodgy.

Use Google Play

For the most part, the apps and games in Google Play should be safe but just because it’s available through the official Android app store does not mean it’s definitely safe to download. Make sure that you check the rating and read the reviews from other users on each app. This can highlight potential problems and also technical issues you might encounter with your particular model or device. Don’t rely on Google Play reviews alone because app store ratings can be misleading.

In general, the higher the rating and the more downloads an app has had, the safer it is to download. The biggest risk is from new releases which have very little feedback posted. If it hasn’t been downloaded many times and there isn’t much to go on then you might want to do a bit more research before you download.

Search for app reviews online

If you are uncertain about an app then just do a quick Web search. Make sure that the developer and/or publisher has a legitimate website. Try to find independent reviews or discussions in forums. The more separate sources you can find on the app, the better.

Make sure that you have the correct app. Some malware writers will create apps that are designed to look exactly like another popular established app. Check that the app name, developer, and publisher are all correct.

android app security basics google play

Check the permissions

That screen that you flick past when installing a new game or app on your Android phone lists out the permissions that you are granting to the software. There is a clear barrier right there. The problem is that users don’t always understand why an app wants a specific permission and it can be difficult to distinguish between a valid reason and a suspicious request.

Try to figure out a reason why the app or game might need each permission, and if you can’t, don’t install. Does the app need to be able to track your location? Does it need to have Internet access? Does it need the ability to make calls or send messages? Do you want to allow it to take photos?

Unfortunately, all of the permissions look suspicious and the explanatory text (or lack thereof) can be cause for concern. An app might want “Full Internet access” so it can serve ads. It will want to be able to “Read phone state and identity” to determine when you are on a call. What you really want to watch out for is apps requesting permissions that they really shouldn’t need. Always be wary of apps that want the ability to make calls, send messages, or read contact data.

If in doubt, do a quick Web search on the permission in question and you’ll find further information.

the next version of android may let you block apps from seeing your contacts permissions

Check updates before installing

Many people are careful when they first install an app, but once they have it on their device they become complacent about installing updates. Always check out the recent app reviews in Google Play to see if an update is worth getting. This can reveal potential technical issues for your device.

You also need to remember that the update can request new permissions. The original app may have been legitimate, but the update could be up to no good. Malware writers have been known to lull users into a false sense of security with an app that’s malware free, only to unleash malware in an update.

Common sense

Staying safe with the Android platform is all about applying some common sense and being a little cautious. The risk of malware if you apply these simple tips is minimal. The majority of Android users will never encounter any malware problems.

If you’re still concerned, go ahead and get a good security app (here are some suggestions), but it’s important to remember that antivirus apps are no substitute for common sense. Even a good security app does not allow you to disregard these tips with impunity. You should always be careful about what you install.

Mobile

Tired of unwanted calls? There are many ways to block a number in Android

Telemarketer or persistent ex won't leave you alone? Here's how to block a number in Android, whether you want to do so with native features or mobile apps such as Mr. Number or Should I Answer?
Mobile

The world can be your oyster with a little help from the best travel apps around

Traveling doesn't need to be a time-consuming nuisance. Our handpicked selection of the best travel apps will keep things simple, whether you need cost comparisons for hotels or directions to renowned eateries.
Mobile

Google is replacing some Pixel 2 handsets due to faulty rear cameras

Google’s Pixel 2 smartphones have plenty to recommend them, but they’re not perfect. We've rounded up the most common Pixel 2 issues and Pixel 2 XL problems here and identify workarounds or fixes to help you cope with them.
Computing

The best Windows apps

Not sure what apps you should be downloading for your newfangled Windows device? Here are the best Windows apps, whether you need something to speed up your machine or access your Netflix queue. Check out our categories and favorite picks!
Mobile

Apple fixes its battery drain issue with iOS 11.4.1 update

Apple's iOS 11 is the latest version of the company's mobile operating system, but it still has some issues to be worked out. We've searched the internet to find the biggest iOS 11 problems, along with some potential solutions.
Gaming

How to connect your phone to an Xbox One

Microsoft's Xbox app can't do it all, but it does allow you to access your profile information and launch media content directly from your mobile device. Check out our quick guide on how to connect your smartphone to an Xbox One.
Product Review

Knock, knock. Who's there? The Ring video doorbell shows you on your phone

Along with the door itself, the doorbell is one of the first items most visitors will interact with when entering your home. The Ring Video Doorbell can show you who's at the door, whether they've actually rung the doorbell or not.
Mobile

These are the best video chat apps to help you stay in touch

Though still relatively new, video chat apps can help you connect with people from around the world. Here are our personal favorites to help you keep in touch regardless of smartphone OS.
Smart Home

How to set up your Google Home device in 10 easy steps

This device can do a whole lot, from playing music to reading the weather to controlling your smart home devices. We break down how to set up your Google Home so that you can get started enjoying all the things this product can do.
Mobile

Google’s $5.1 billion anti-trust fine could mean the end of free Android

The European Commission has fined Google a record breaking $5.1 billion. The EU is accusing the company of severe antitrust infractions related to the search engine giant's handling of the Android ecosystem.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Android Army

From Oreo to Jelly Bean, here's how to turn off notifications in Android

If you're sick of spam Android notifications, then identify the apps responsible and get rid of them. We explain how to find offending apps and turn off notifications in Android, no matter what version you're running.
Mobile

Only Google should be mad about having to change Android

Google has been hit with a massive fine in a landmark antitrust case in Europe, and has been told to change the way it manages its Android operating system, or face a heavier financial hit.
Computing

Chrome is still our favorite browser (but Firefox is catching up!)

Choosing a web browser for surfing the web can be tough with all the great options you have out there. Here we pit the latest versions of Chrome, Opera, Firefox, Edge, and Vivaldi against one another to find the best browsers for most…
Mobile

EU antitrust czar will brief Google CEO ahead of massive fine

Sources close to the European Commission claim Google will likely face a multibillion-dollar fine for anticompetitive practices relating to Android's dominance in the smartphone market.
Mobile

How to play Steam games on Android

With Steam Link, you can officially bypass your laptop or desktop computer and play games directly on your Android device using a number of different controllers. Here's what you need to know to get started.
Mobile

Corning’s Gorilla Glass 6 will help your phone survive up to 15 drops before it shatters

Corning has finally taken the wraps off of the long-awaited Gorilla Glass 6 -- a glass that will be used to protect the next generation of smartphones -- which allows your phone to survive up to 15 drops before it breaks.
Mobile

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 will likely come with a steep price tag

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 will surely be big, bold, and pricey, but will it be foldable, or have an under-display fingerprint sensor? Those are just some of the rumors swirling around one of 2018's most anticipated phones.
Mobile

Samsung mocks iPhone X download speed in new ad for Galaxy S9

Samsung’s smartphone division loves to mock Apple and its devotees at every opportunity, with its latest ad highlighting a recent test that showed the Galaxy S9 to have faster downloads speeds than the iPhone X.
Mobile

Samsung's Galaxy X foldable smartphone reportedly set to launch early next year

Samsung has been showcasing bendable display technology for a few years now and a folding smartphone might finally become a reality. The Galaxy X may be the company's first example, and here's everything we know about it.
Mobile

With a public API, Venmo’s default privacy settings expose private user data

Fans of Venmo may want to consider changing their privacy settings. A security researcher was able to analyze over 200 million Venmo transactions through its public API, which exposed many private details about its users.