Think iPhones can’t get viruses? Our expert explains why it could happen

If you read the tech headlines every day, then you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re in the middle of a security meltdown with software viruses and malware running rampant, and there’s certainly some truth to that. These threats afflict all of our internet connected devices from smart speakers to laptops to phones.

While there’s a strong perception that Android is insecure, you don’t hear so much about iOS. Many people believe that Apple’s iPhones are immune to viruses or malware, others worry about the possibility, but what’s the truth of the matter? Can iPhones get viruses?

“In theory, yes,” Maik Morgenstern, chief technology officer for AV-Test, told Digital Trends. “However, the practical hurdles are quite high, and it is unlikely for a normal user to get affected. But vulnerabilities exist that can be exploited by attackers.”

People tend to use the word virus to describe all undesirable and uninvited software, but technically the term refers to software that infects a host, inserting itself into an existing program, and then spreads that infection by self-replicating. Viruses are only a small percentage of malware (malicious software) – the real catch-all term – and they’re especially rare on smartphones. If you get a mysterious advert pop-up or an app logs your data and sends it off to a remote server, you may interpret it as a virus, though it’s probably another kind of malware. We’re going with that wider definition here.

How safe is iOS?

Apple has been criticized for its walled garden approach, because it doesn’t allow for as much choice and customization as some of the alternatives, but there are some benefits to being more restrictive.

iphone x

“Since iOS is a closed ecosystem, users can only install apps from the App Store which is thoroughly checked by Apple,” Morgenstern said. “It is unlikely that malware writers will get malware in the store.”

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, of course, and there have been incidents where legitimate apps in the iOS App Store were infected with malware. In one case cybercriminals were able to trick Chinese app developers into using a counterfeit version of an Apple development tool.

“Another infection vector may be vulnerabilities in iOS which may allow attackers to infect your device,” Morgenstern said.

“It is unlikely that malware writers will get malware in the store.”

Back in 2017, WikiLeaks published details of the CIA’s hacking tools. The report included some methods that the CIA had used to break into iPhones by exploiting vulnerabilities in iOS. Apple was swift to release a statement saying that most of the vulnerabilities had already been patched and the rest soon would be, but it’s perfectly plausible that someone out there is aware of and currently exploiting a vulnerability in the system and there will certainly be people working on finding more. Just as the people at Apple work tirelessly to block them and patch vulnerabilities.

One of the reasons that iOS is relatively safe compared to Android is that cybercriminals and other attackers will go for the path of least resistance or the low hanging fruit first. Many of the vulnerabilities that are uncovered in Android are slow to be patched on every device. Google may act swiftly, but updates only make it onto some phones when the manufacturer and carrier get it together. Apple doesn’t have this issue, so patches can be pushed out widely far more rapidly. There are also many more Android users, so it’s a bigger target.

Common threats across platforms

Successful phishing attacks, where people are conned into volunteering sensitive details are common on iOS and Android, because they don’t necessarily require people to install anything first. A victim might be presented with what appears to be a legitimate login screen, but has in fact been created by criminals, and when they enter their login details, they are effectively handing them over.

We’ve also seen a rise in smishing, which is really just phishing via mobile text messages. People may receive what appears to be a regular text message from a big company with a link in it and if they tap on that link they’re redirected to a fake website or trigger a malware download of some kind. These kinds of messages take all sorts of guises from tax refunds to security warnings that you need to update your banking details.

can iphones get viruses iphone face down

Being conned out of details should be easy to avoid. Never log into anything through links in emails, text messages, or social media messages. Type the address into your browser, or log in through the app.

Malware is a bit like a vampire – it has to be invited onto your iPhone. By default, you can’t install apps from outside of the App Store. If you get an unexpected popup trying to install something always back out of it, don’t invite it in. But there’s still a risk of annoying things like web page redirects that plague you with popups. If you encounter those go to Settings > Safari > Clear History and Website Data and then tap again to confirm and you should be good.

How do you know if your iPhone has a virus?

The simple answer to this is that you often won’t have any idea if there’s malware installed on your device. False positives are far more common than actual issues. People will often interpret a poorly coded app, a stray setting, or an aging battery as signs of malware.

“Don’t jailbreak the device and always install updates as soon as they become available.”

If you notice suspicious behavior on your iPhone, then you’ll certainly want to investigate, but, unless you’ve jailbroken your device, it’s not likely to be caused by a virus or malware. Try backing up your iPhone and perform a factory reset to see if your issues are resolved. If the strange behavior persists, then consider visiting an Apple Store and ask them to take a look for you.

What can you do to reduce risk?

There are some good iPhone security apps out there and VPN apps can be a good idea, but these options are really focused on your privacy more than anything else. For the most part you don’t have to worry about a virus or malware on your iPhone if you stick to the Apple App Store.

“Unless a person jailbreaks their device, they won’t be able to install unchecked third-party apps,” Morgenstern said.

So, if you’re worried about staying safe, the answer is simple:

“Don’t jailbreak the device and always install updates as soon as they become available to fix existing security vulnerabilities.”


Don’t be fooled! Study exposes most popular phishing email subject lines

Phishing emails are on the rise and a new study out by the cybersecurity company Barracuda has exposed some of the most common phishing email subject lines used to exploit businesses. 

Rooting your Android device is risky. Do it right with our handy guide

Wondering whether to root your Android smartphone or stick with stock Android? Perhaps you’ve decided to do it and you just need to know how? Here, you'll find an explanation and a quick guide on how to root Android devices.

Sending SMS messages from your PC is easier than you might think

Texting is a fact of life, but what to do when you're in the middle of something on your laptop or just don't have your phone handy? Here's how to send a text message from a computer, whether you prefer to use an email client or Windows 10.

Here's how you can control your PS4 right from your phone

Sony built the PlayStation 4 with smartphone and mobile integration in mind. Take a look at our guide for connecting your smartphone or tablet to a PS4, so you can get the most out of the system while on the go.

Need a quick battery boost? Try one of our favorite portable chargers

Battery life still tops the polls when it comes to smartphone concerns. If it’s bugging you, then maybe it’s time to snag yourself a portable charger. Here are our picks for the best portable chargers.

You can now listen to Google Podcasts on your desktop without the app

The Google Podcasts app is no longer entirely necessary to listen to the podcasts it offers. With a simple tweak of the sharing URL, you can listen to a Google Podcasts podcast on your desktop or laptop without the app.

The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G might be a few short weeks away from launch

Samsung has announced a whopping four new Galaxy S10 devices, from the low-cost S10e to the triple-camera S10 and S10 Plus. But it's the Galaxy S10 5G that steals the show as it's among the first 5G-ready smartphones to hit the market.

T-Mobile goes after big cable companies, pilots wireless home internet service

In a shot at big cable companies, T-Mobile is launching a new pilot program to bring an unlimited wireless LTE home internet service to up to 50,000 homes across the United States by the end of 2019.

Type away on the best iPad keyboard cases, from the Mini to the Pro

Whether you're looking to replace your laptop with a tablet or merely want to increase your typing speed, a physical iPad keyboard is the perfect companion to the iPad. Check out our top picks for every available iPad model.

Apple patent suggests Apple Watch bands could have built-in fitness indicators

Apple may be exploring ways to make Apple Watch bands a little more useful. A new patent has been filed by Apple that suggests Apple Watch bands could eventually have indicators for things like fitness goals.

Apple patents hint at improved Apple Store and unboxing experiences

It looks like Apple is working on ways to improve the Apple Store and product unboxing experiences. The company has been awarded a few patents, largely for tech that can be used in product packaging to ensure products stay charged.

Fossil made a smartwatch in 2004, and it’s part of a new brand retrospective

Fossil has been making watches for 35 years, and to celebrate the anniversary, it has a new retrospective exhibit complete with the first smartwatch it made — the Wrist Net watch from 2004.

Make some time for the best smartwatch deals for March 2019

Smartwatches make your life easier by sending alerts right on your wrist. Many also provide fitness-tracking features. So if you're ready to take the plunge into wearables and want to save money, read on for the best smartwatch deals.

Fossil is working on a smartwatch with BMW, and it’s coming next year

Fossil, the watch company that makes smartwatches under its own name and partners with other major brands too, intends to launch a smartwatch with car manufacturer BMW in the future.