Outbreak threat: should we use antivirus software on our phones?


We all know we're supposed to have some form of antivirus software on our computers, but even with (hopefully) most people running some form of protection, malware is still rampant.

Panda Security reports that in 2015 32.13% of the computers it scanned were infected in some way and over 84 million new malware samples were detected.

Of those infections, not all fall under the label of viruses. The majority of infections were found to be malicious programs, known as Trojans. A virus, on the other hand, is something which attaches itself to an existing program to cause harm.

Other malware includes worms, adware and PUPs (potentially unwanted programs), the latter being unwanted software which installs at the same time as something you actually do want - more annoying than dangerous.

Yet despite smartphones basically being pocket computers, and therefore surely at risk of infection, antivirus software seems to be more seen as optional than essential.

So should we be worried about viruses and other malware on our phones? Or are there enough built in protections already?

The risks are real, but avoidable

We asked Tony Anscombe, Senior Security Evangelist at AVG Technologies whether phones really are at risk. He told techradar that: "Ultimately, all devices are at risk from malicious viruses, but as we become increasingly dependent on our smartphones for all aspects our daily lives they become a much more attractive target for hackers.

"Think about the amount of information stored on your phone: personal ID, bank and credit card details, browsing history, app data, medical notes – and that's just scratching the surface. Today, smartphones hold everything a hacker needs to steal money and, at worst, your identity."

Of course the answer here could simply be to change how you use your phone, so that there won't be all that personal information for thieves to find.

It's also perhaps unsurprising that an antivirus company would present viruses as a significant risk, yet the evidence so far seems to be that on smartphones they're not as much of a worry as you'd expect.

There aren't yet close to the same number of viruses on smartphones as on desktops, with a recent report from Motive Security Labs finding less than 1% of mobile devices infected with malware. Compared to PCs that's a tiny proportion and while they still present a risk it's a pretty tiny, and largely avoidable, one.

The way our phones pick up malware also differs from how we're most likely to get it on a PC. Gert-Jan Schenk, VP of Lookout EMEA, told us:

"One thing to pay particular attention to is phishing. Mobile devices' small form means we interact with them pretty differently than desktop computers," he said.

"In fact, studies have shown that users are three times more likely to click on a malicious link from their smartphone than a PC, which makes phishing emails or messages a serious issue on mobile."

Text messages are another vulnerable area. Anscombe explained that: "One of the most vulnerable aspects for smartphone users is text messaging – simply because we're not conditioned to recognise malicious content in the same way when we get a text message."

So it seems the risks could be lower still once people wise up to them. In general, if you get a link in a text message from a number that's not in your phone it's probably sketchy, even (or especially) if it claims to come from a reputable institution, like your bank.

Similarly, some messages will ask you to call a number, warning of - for example - suspicious activity on your account. To be on the safe side always use a number that you can identify as official, such as one that's come directly from the institution's website. It can take longer to hunt out, but it keeps you safer.