Antivirus apps for Android are useless – here’s what to do instead

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Android has grown to be the largest computing platform on the planet and that makes it a target. You can’t spend a lot of time on the internet without hearing about some new piece of Android malware that will surely destroy your phone 100%. These reports are always based on fact, but they can overestimate the real risks of detecting malware, and the definition of malware can be quite vague. Security companies are usually pushing a virus scanning app of some kind. However, Android is inherently more secure than a desktop computer, so maybe you don’t need these security apps. You probably already have what you need.

The scare tactics

In a 2019 report from AV-Comparatives, we learned that most antivirus apps on Android don’t even do anything to check apps for malicious behavior. They only use white / black lists to mark apps, which is ineffective and makes them little more than advertising platforms with some fake buttons. Shocking and upsetting, right? They can get away with it because real Android viruses taking over your device aren’t as common as you’d expect. “Malware” can include milder threats such as apps that collect personal information or trigger pop-up ads. You still want to avoid them, of course, but malware scanners won’t help you.

Android and other mobile platforms have their roots in the modern era, when programmers understood the dangers of the Internet. We’ve all been programmed about what to expect from PC malware, which can sneak into your system simply because you’ve visited the wrong website with a vulnerable browser. These “drive-by downloads” are not possible on Android without a pre-existing infection. On Android, you need to physically tap a notification to install an APK downloaded from a source outside the Play Store. Again, there are security settings that need to be overridden manually. This is not to say that it is impossible for Android to have a serious zero-day bug that allows someone to steal apps not on your phone, but it should be an extremely delicate and expensive operation. Unless you’re a diplomat or have high-level security clearance, anyone is unlikely to care about such a scheme.

So, what about the malware on the Play Store? Again, it depends on what you mean by malware. The most serious security risks will never make it to the store. Google’s platform has the ability to scan for known malware when it is loaded. There is also a human review process in place for anything that seems even a little questionable. Occasionally you may hear about some “malware” apps in the Play Store, usually related to information gathering or advertising tricks. Google deals with these issues quickly, but anti-malware apps won’t catch this sort of thing.

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The solution proposed by AV companies is to install a security suite that manually scans each app, monitors web traffic, and so on. These apps tend to consume resources and are generally annoying with abundant notifications and pop-ups. You probably don’t need to install Lookout, AVG, Norton, or any of the other AV apps on Android. Instead, there are some completely reasonable steps you can take to not drag your phone. For example, your phone is already has integrated antivirus protection.

What you should do to stay safe

Your first line of defense is simply not to mess with Android’s default security settings. To get Google certified, every phone and tablet comes with “Unknown Sources” disabled in the security settings. If you want to sideload an APK downloaded from outside of Google Play, your phone will ask you to enable that feature for the source app. Leaving this disabled protects you from virtually all Android malware because there is hardly any in the Play Store.

However, there are legitimate reasons for allowing unknown sources. For example, Amazon’s Appstore client sideloads the apps and games you buy, and many reputable sites re-host official app updates which are rolled out gradually so you don’t have to wait your turn. Along with the Play Store, you also have Google Play Protect, which scans your apps for malicious activity. Updates to Play Protect are implemented through Play Services, so no system updates are required to stay protected. In most cases, installing a third-party AV app simply duplicates the work of Play Protect.


Users have rooted their Android phones ever since the first phones hit the market, but it’s less common nowadays. The platform offers many of the features that people used to root to acquire. Using rooted Android is basically like running a computer in administrator mode. While it is possible to run a rooted phone securely, it is definitely a security risk. Some exploits and malware require root access to work and are otherwise harmless even if you install them somehow. If you don’t have a good reason to root your phone or tablet, don’t open yourself up to this possibility.

Android security screens

Some Android apps may not be “malware” per se, but you may not want them on your phone because they browse your data. Most people don’t read permissions for the apps they install, but the Play Store makes all this information available. Starting with Android 6.0 and later, apps need to request access to sensitive permissions such as access to contacts, local storage, microphone, camera, and location tracking. If an app has reason to access these modules (like a social networking app), you’re probably fine. If, however, a flashlight app asks for your contact list, you may want to think again. System settings include tools to manually revoke permissions for any app.

It really just takes a little common sense to avoid Android malware. If you do nothing else, keeping your downloads limited to the Play Store will protect you from almost any threat out there. The antivirus app they are redundant at best and detrimental to system performance at worst.

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