Smartphone spyware is a concern among consumers, for good reason. Our phones contain nearly every aspect of our lives. Social media, email, bank accounts, embarrassing beach photos – all stored on pocket-sized devices.
Thus, privacy is of major importance for many smartphone owners, though it seems many app developers feel otherwise. The old adage “nothing in life is free” seems to be most applicable to smartphone apps.
How does spyware and adware affect smartphones?
A majority of smartphone apps are mining your personal data – typically this is simple things, like your browsing and shopping habits. This is done through adware, which is not typically malicious.
The kind of data mining that typical adware does is easily noticeable – if you search Google for karaoke machines, you might see advertisements for karaoke machines on Facebook. Your browsing and shopping habits are saved as cookies / tokens on your device, which apps read. Most consumers generally don’t care about this kind of data mining, because it seems fairly harmless. However, some apps can be bundled with malicious adware.
Adware is not typically considered malware (malicious software), if the ads are confined to within an app.An ad displayed after a level of Candy Crush, for example – that is perfectly normal adware behavior.
However, some adware will deliver highly aggressive pop-up ads, even if you don’t have any apps open. That is when adware becomes a problem, and the offending app and adware must be removed (see here for app security features.)
Spyware on the other hand is something to be wary of. While adware can be a form of spyware, since it collects user data, malicious spyware collects much more than you would normally consent to. For example, a strain of Android malware named Triout was discovered late in 2018. The malware has incredibly spyware capabilities, which include:
- Recording phone calls.
- Collecting SMS messages.
- Uploading your photo gallery to a remote server.
- Tracking your GPS coordinates.
Triout was found bundled in an adult-themed app on the Google Play store – although it is not the first of its kind. In fact, 13 malware-containing apps were removed from Google Play in November 2018, and over 700,000 malicious apps were removed from Google Play in 2017. Between 2017 – 2018 is when Google started focusing more efforts on its Google Play Protect app-scanning, hence why the number of malicious apps on Play Store has dropped.
That doesn’t mean Google Play store is entirely safe, as evidenced by the discovery of Triout. Play Store has gotten safer, but malicious devs will always find new tricks to bundle malware in apps.
How can you protect yourself from phone spyware?
- Be suspicious of app permissions: When downloading phone apps, you should thoroughly check what system permissions it requires, and think carefully about why it needs those permissions. For example, Facebook Messenger needs access to your phone and camera for video calls, obviously. If a daily horoscope app requests those permissions, your immediate thought should be “why?”
- Don’t root your device: Imagine giving malware administrative privileges on your device. That’s what happens when malware finds its way onto a rooted Android phone. You may have heard of “rooting” as a way of unlocking deeper privileges on your phone, which is true – it gives you full access to modify the Android system as you wish (to a degree), which unlocks tons of customization potential. It’s also giving thieves the keys to your front door, if you don’t know what you’re doing.
- Use a reputable antivirus: Many “hardcore” Android enthusiasts will insist that antivirus for phones is generally useless. They know what they’re doing, who needs antivirus? But that’s like a guitar virtuoso telling someone Asturias is easy to learn. The fact is, most common Android users should use antivirus. Google Play Protect scanning isn’t yet perfect, and an additional antivirus app can catch malicious activities that slip past Google’s detection. You can read a review of Avira Antivirus Security at Antivirusrankings.com.
At the end of the day, keeping your smartphone safe is in your hands (no pun intended). It requires smart usage, such as avoiding risky websites, and checking app permissions before installation. A proper antivirus can add an additional layer of security, which is why most average smartphone users should have one.