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.

Computing

Apple’s unsafe Mac App Store is simply inexcusable

Multiple reports have indicated top apps in the Mac App Store have been stealing sensitive data right. Not only did Apple fail to properly vet them, it ignored warnings from security researchers for weeks. Is a safe app store too much to…
Mobile

Be an online phantom and web surf safely with Ghostery’s mobile browser

Keeping your private information to yourself has become progressively harder in the internet age. If you're worried about your personal information, check out the new version of the Ghostery browser for iOS and Android.
Mobile

Google Maps is available on Apple CarPlay with iOS 12

After months of betas, the final version of iOS 12 is here to download. The new OS comes along with tons of new capabilities from grouped notifications to Siri Shortcuts, here are all the features you'll find in iOS 12.
Mobile

Dozens of bite-sized features add up to a feast in Android 9.0 Pie

Google’s latest version of Android is here, and it’s called Android 9 Pie. We’ve been using it for the past few months on a Google Pixel to see how this flavor stacks up.
Mobile

Too close to call: Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus vs LG G7 ThinQ camera shootout

We take the LG G7 ThinQ and Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus to Rome for a camera shootout, photographing everything from the amazing local sights to an impressive showjumping event. How do these two excellent phones compare?
Mobile

Handy iOS 12 tips and tricks to master Apple's latest update

Apple's iOS 12 mobile operating system introduces a ton of new features, with more options to help boost productivity. But updating to it can be overwhelming, so we're here to make it easier with some iOS 12 tips and tricks.
Mobile

Google Play rewards system arrives in Japan, no sign of U.S. release yet

After some rumors, Google has finally revealed the existence of Google Play Points. But for now, it's only available in Japan, and there's no indication of when a U.S. or worldwide release is planned.
Mobile

The Google Pixel 3 smartphone may arrive dressed in pink

Forget the Pixel 2: Google will announce its latest flagships, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, on October 9 in New York City and Paris. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.
Mobile

Google’s Family Link expands globally, now works on more devices

Google's Family Link app makes it easier for parents to keep track of their kids' smartphone usage. They can restrict them from downloading apps, see which services they use the most, and more. Here's everything you need to know.
Mobile

Find out how Apple's new iPhones measure up to the most bezel-less designs

As the smartphone industry marches toward a bezel-less future, we compare the shrinking bezels on the latest and greatest devices. Find out which manufacturers have the smallest bezels on their smartphone as we measure them side by side.
Mobile

Mi 8 Pro looks like an iPhone, but has a feature Apple fans can only dream of

Xiaomi has launched two new phones in the Mi 8 family: The Mi 8 Pro and the Mi 8 Lite. Unlike the past models, these two are definitely going to be sold internationally. Here's what you need to know about them both.
Mobile

Apple iPhone XS vs. Samsung Galaxy S9: 2018’s biggest flagships clash

The iPhone XS has been revealed, and it's one of the best phones of the year. But even though it's Apple's latest and greatest, it's up against a lot of competition. Is the iPhone XS better than the Samsung Galaxy S9?
Mobile

Samsung exec confirms upcoming Galaxy S10 will sport 'very significant changes'

While we still may be months away from an announcement, there's no doubt about it: Samsung is working hard on its successor to the Galaxy S9. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10.
Mobile

OnePlus 6T may launch soon with in-display fingerprint sensor, dual cameras

According to a recent report, the launch of the OnePlus 6T could be different from any other OnePlus launch in history. How? It could have the backing of a major U.S. carrier. Here's everything we know about the OnePlus 6T.