Some important facts about Android antivirus applications

With the increase of Android malware, you have nothing to lose by installing an Android anti-virus application. Let Michael Kassner help you find which one is right for you.



Depending on which side of the fence you stand, Android anti-virus (AV) apps are a waste of time or they’re absolutely necessary. I prefer to error on the side of caution, especially when it doesn’t cost anything.

If you're wondering why I say there’s no cost, that’s because independent testing facilities, including AV-TEST GmbH say there is little difference between the paid and free versions of Android AV apps regarding their ability to locate malware on mobiles devices.

AV-TEST can say that because, every four months, they round up all major Android AV apps and put them through their paces. For some time now, their testing has shown that both versions work equally well when protecting mobile devices. The paid versions are such because of additional features like backing up data, locating devices, and locking stolen phones.

Performance issues

Another point of controversy I often read about is “Android AV apps affect performance.” Not according to AV-TEST, and their engineers monitor device performance during testing in the following categories: battery life, processing speed, and RF traffic levels. 

Figure A

Figure A
AV-TEST performance testing.

Of all the applications tested, only two did not have a clean slate: one app caused abnormal battery drain, and one generated too much traffic.

So, hopefully you're now convinced that there's nothing to lose by installing an Android AV application on your mobile device. All that’s left is to choose which one.

Which app is right for me?

When deciding which of the free apps to pick, AV-TEST can help. The company’s November-December 2013 test results compare 28 of the most popular AV apps for Android, rating each in usability and quality of protection. One AV app that is curiously missing is Lookout. I've sent AV-TEST an email asking why, as Lookout is arguably one of the top three most popular Android AV applications (see update below).

For those who have installed an AV app or are now thinking about it, we need to look at a quirk in the Android operating system and how it affects AV applications.

Android AV apps are not like Windows AV software

Many people are under the assumption that Android AV apps work just like Windows AV software, and that’s a misconception we need to clear up. But first, the similarities: like Windows AV software, Android AV apps block URLs, scan downloads for malware, and identify malware installed on mobile devices.

Now the difference: do not expect Android AV applications to remove malware or to place malware into quarantine. Android AV apps can't do that. Android, the operating system, treats malware like any other application by isolating it using a process called sandboxing.

This means the user needs to remove malware manually, by first locating the malware in the Application section of the device’s System Manager, then opening the malware app’s statistics page, and tapping uninstall (Figure B).

Figure B


Figure B

You must manually uninstall the malware application.  

The bottom line

Remember to uninstall any application that an Android AV app pegs as malware. If it’s not removed, the malicious app will continue to function, regardless of the fact the AV app is aware of the installed malware. 

Update: Andreas Marx, CEO of AV-TEST GmbH, answered my email right at deadline. I’ll let him explain why Lookout was not tested: 

“Lookout requested to opt-out from this specific test. I'm not entirely sure about the reasons, e.g. if they had issues with our tests, the test procedures or sample selection, or if they are preparing a new product and want to join again after it gets available.”

Marx also included an incentive (Figure C) for those who are still unconvinced that Android AV applications are important.

Figure C


Figure C

Number of Android malware.

In 2013 alone, AV-TEST registered 1.5 million Android-related malware samples, bringing the total to 1.8 million. During November of 2013, AV-TEST received 6,000 new samples per day. 

What AV application do you use on your Android device? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.