These free antivirus apps may cause more damage than actual viruses

Phone malware
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Downloading a free antivirus (opens in new tab) or cleaning app for your Android smartphone (opens in new tab) may put your privacy and security at greater risk than if you had avoided doing so altogether as many of these apps contain data trackers and even links to potentially malicious domains.

To compile its new report, Cybernews (opens in new tab) studied the 40 highest-ranking and most downloaded cleaning and Android antivirus apps (opens in new tab) on the Google Play Store (opens in new tab) to find that many of these apps don’t live up to the high standards of similar software on desktop. Even worse, between them these apps have been installed more than 918m times and and the most popular ones have over 1m installs each.

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Cybernews’ research team provided further insight on its findings and explained why users may be tempted to download these apps in a blog post (opens in new tab), saying:

“Based on the total installation count, common Android users are eager to secure their phones from malware and interested in keeping their devices running as fast as possible by cleaning junk files and cache. Less tech-savvy users are likely to download an app to do all of this tedious work automatically. However, a lot of the free available options come at a hidden price – user data is being tracked, sold or plainly managed insecurely due to questionable coding and privacy practices of the application developers.”

Red flags galore

After doing a deep dive on each of the 40 apps in question, Cybernews then gave each a security score out of 100.

13 of the apps were judged to be so detrimental to privacy by the news outlet that they scored the lowest possible grade due to “questionable coding practices” while six contained likely malicious links that could put Android users looking to secure their devices more at risk of having their smartphones hacked.

The antivirus app Keep Clean Cleaner took the top spot among these bad apps with a score of 54 out of 100 for security. Meanwhile, last place went to the app Safe Security Antivirus booster and phone cleaner that received a score of nine.

Cybernews was unable to analyze two of the 40 apps possibly due to obfuscation (opens in new tab) which is a method employed by developers to fend off reverse-engineering. However, obfuscation can also be used to conceal something malicious like malware (opens in new tab).

It’s worth noting that nearly all of the 40 apps contained trackers and while some had just a handful, others like Nova Security had thirty.

If something is free there’s always a cost and in the case of these antivirus and cleaner apps, it’s your privacy and potentially your security. While normally reading reviews, checking ratings and seeing how many downloads an app has would be enough to let you know if it is legitimate, this isn’t always the case as shown by Cybernews’ latest report.

Via Cybernews (opens in new tab)

Anthony Spadafora

After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.