Explained: Do I need Antivirus for my Smartphone?

Dennis Faas's picture

Infopackets Reader Mike B. writes:

" Dear Dennis,

I just read John Lister's article on '700M Android Phones Contain Chinese Spyware', and I have a related question.

I've just bought myself a Windows 10 phone (Lumia 640 XLT LTE). I like it, but am unsure what I need to do, if anything, about antivirus / malware protection. I'm a bit paranoid about this stuff and keep my home PC up to date and protected, and backed up. I read in a number of places that it's not necessary to have antivirus / anti-malware software on the Windows Phone. Is this true, or do I need some form of malware protection? If so, what? I'd value your opinion as someone whose knowledge and experience I trust. If what I've read is true would it be safe to use WiFi hotspots in stores and public places? I never use these hotspots with my laptop. Thanks for your newsletter it's always helpful. "

My response:

I have never owned a Windows Phone, but I have been using the Android operating system for a few years now.

Based on my experience with Android, 99.99999% of all software installs for most users are done through the Google Play store (similar to the Windows App Store, and the iPhone App Store), which is where the majority of people go to download apps for their phones. This software is vetted beforehand to ensure it's not malicious, however, this is not always 100% accurate, as some malicious programs do make their way onto the Google Play store. The same holds true for the Windows App store and the iPhone App store.

That said, it is possible to install software from other sources online the web, but to do so you must purposely relax security restrictions on the phone and tick a check box to "accept the risks" when installing software not from Google Play. When you do install a program not from Google Play, you will once again have to tick a box to "accept the risks", otherwise the program won't install. Doing this however is dangerous for obvious reasons.

Beyond that, the Android operating system is locked down in such a way it is nearly impossible to install malware onto the system because the smartphone user doesn't have "administrator" rights like a Windows PC does. So, even if you did download something malicious, it would be extremely difficult for anything bad to happen - but, once again, that is not always the case. The reason is that operating system exploits are discovered in smartphones much like any PC (because the operating system is simply software), so if your phone isn't up to date and if you managed to install something bad, then there's a chance something could go awry.

If you are worried that this may happen, then you have the choice to install antivirus for your smartphone, but this will surely slow your phone down something fierce because each and every thing you do on the phone will now be second-guessed through the antivirus. This eats up your CPU and memory resources, resulting in slower response times on apps, plus it will drain the battery because you're effectively doing things twice over.

I realize your question is about the Windows Phone specifically, but I believe that the iPhone and Android and Windows Phone operate in a similar fashion. I personally don't own an iPhone or a Windows Phone, so anyone reading this article is welcome to share their thoughts, especially if something I've mentioned is differs on their system.

Explained: Are Wifi Hotspots Safe on a Smartphone?

As for wifi hotspots: they are usually harmless, but it is possible for someone to spoof a hotspot and prompt you to install malicious software. Since most people download software only from the app store (where software is already vetted), a malicious hotspot might try and get you to download malicious software from somewhere else - but again this would be difficult to pull off if you left the default security restrictions in place.

One other major issue to discuss when using a wifi hotspot is that data can be sniffed, resulting in stolen passwords and even identity theft. This can happen anywhere on any device (tablet, smartphone, laptop) if you use a wifi hotspot that is not secured or otherwise untrusted. As such I advise that you do not do any online banking or enter passwords into any sensitive websites if you choose to use a wifi hotspot unless you are also using a trustworthy virtual private network (VPN) which will help to "hide" the information you're entering. Even so, VPN's are not 100% safe.

Since owning an Android smartphone I've used countless wifi hotspots and suffered no ill effects, all things considered. If it was up to me I would suggest you don't bother with the antivirus because I think it's overkill and it will slow the phone down terribly, plus it will also drain your battery. This is only true of course if your Windows Phone / iPhone operates in a similar manner as to how the Android phone does, and I'm pretty sure it does.

Those are my two cents on the subject.

PS: in regard to John Lister's article "700M Android Phones Contain Chinese Spyware" - this type of malware attack (which is embedded into the firmware of the phone) is much different than the type of attacks I've described in this article. The majority of malware attacks will come from software which resides on the operating system (and not in firmware) as these programs are usually added after the operating system is installed and by the user. In contrast, firmware malware is usually installed at the manufacturing level and is nearly impossible to detect because it's not part of the operating system, so antivirus wouldn't help you out one bit because it won't be able to recognize that anything is out of place.

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About the author: Dennis Faas is the owner and operator of Infopackets.com. With over 30 years of computing experience, Dennis' areas of expertise are a broad range and include PC hardware, Microsoft Windows, Linux, network administration, and virtualization. Dennis holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science (1999) and has authored 6 books on the topics of MS Windows and PC Security. If you like the advice you received on this page, please up-vote / Like this page and share it with friends. For technical support inquiries, Dennis can be reached via Live chat online this site using the Zopim Chat service (currently located at the bottom left of the screen); optionally, you can contact Dennis through the website contact form.

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matt_2058's picture

Along with Anti-virus protection, I monitor my app permissions.

I've found that an initial installation from the PlayStore requires certain permissions I am ok with. But after an app update, more permissions were added without getting specific approval for them, they were just included in the update.

This has happened quite a few times. Now, if I really need to update an app, I may delete it and reinstall it so that I can see exactly what permissions are required. Other than that, I use a permission manager to deny access to each app as I see fit. I review apps and permissions periodically to correct anything that may have changed.

ecash's picture

Im to the point of NOT believing the permissions.
I have a tablet for my mother, who does not have net access.
I went to OFFLINE games and programs..
And about 1/2 of them wanted internet access.

would be nice also, if the NAMES were individual..not 19 versions of games and programs that all look alike..you have to look for the developer, and KNOW the names.
its so much fun, its like learning Computer protection AGAIN..

I do see Ccleaner and malwarebytes on Android..JUST KNOW THE DEVELOPER..