03:20 PM

Android AV Improves But Still Can't Nuke Malware

Google doesn't let Android antivirus app makers automatically quarantine and zap malware. Until then it's up to users to stay on their toes to prevent infection.

Android Security: 8 Signs Hackers Own Your Smartphone
Android Security: 8 Signs Hackers Own Your Smartphone
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Good news: Antivirus and anti-malware scanners designed for the Android operating system continue to improve.

So says a new report, released this week by independent German testing lab AV-Test. The November and December study of 28 different Android antivirus tools found that the apps' ability to protect devices -- by detecting a representative set of more than 2,000 malicious apps discovered in the four weeks prior to the test -- reached an average success rate of 96.6%, up from 90.5% in September.

The tests evaluated the antivirus apps not only on the aforementioned "protection" front, but also looked at usability: the app's hit on battery life and processing speed, how much data it loaded in the background, and also whether it triggered false alerts when testers attempted to install 500 different clean apps via Google Play and third-party app stores. The tests also looked at a variety of app features with security implications, including any anti-theft technology, parental controls, encryption, call blocking, and backup capabilities.

[ What changes are in store for the Windows mobile operating system? Read Windows Phone 8.1: Sneak Peek. ]

The apps with the lowest protection scores were VIRUSfighter Android from SPAMfighter (42.3%) and Zoner (72.1%).

The apps that did the best were from Avast, Avira, ESET, Ikarus, Kaspersky, Kingsoft, Trend Micro, and TrustGo; they earned 100% on both the protection and usability fronts. Meanwhile, products from two vendors -- Antly and Symantec -- scored top marks on protection, but earned slightly lower marks for usability. Almost no products had false-positive problems on the app-installation front.

But what happens when an Android antivirus app detects a threat? Unlike Windows or Mac OS X antivirus products, most Android applications can't eliminate or even quarantine an infection -- they just alert the user. "The mobile security apps are all running in a sandbox, just like any other app," AV-Test CEO Andreas Marx told the Register. "Therefore, they are not able to remove malicious apps [on] their own."

Malicious apps can be automatically removed from the device, but that ability lies solely in the hands of Google and its Android app kill switch -- which, to date, the company has used sparingly -- or apps that are preinstalled by device manufacturers. Thus it stands to reason that an OEM or carrier could build in an antivirus product that has app-quarantining capabilities.

Why hasn't Google allowed all antivirus products to not just detect malicious apps, but then quarantine or delete them? A Google spokesman, reached via email, declined to comment about whether future versions of Android might be updated to enable these capabilities.

Android puts more of the malware-wrangling onus on users, Matthew Standard, threat intelligence director at HBGary, told us. "It puts a lot of emphasis on the user, and being aware," he said.

From a risk standpoint, that's not ideal for any consumer or business user who's not well versed in information security intricacies, and that's what many Android hackers are banking on. "The attackers are benefiting from a lack of education," Standard said. "It's easy for IT, because they see where it fails all the time: don't click on this link, or go to this website."

But non-technically-savvy users would arguably benefit from being able to "trust the technology to do the thinking for you," he said.

AV-Test's Marx argued that, while scans of what's already running on a device are useful, the best malware blocking starts before they get installed. "The on-installation check is the most important anti-malware feature."

IT is turbocharging BYOD, but mobile security practices lag behind the growing risk. Also in the Mobile Security issue of InformationWeek: These seven factors are shaping the future of identity as we transition to a digital world. (Free registration required.

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User Rank: Apprentice
12/17/2013 | 7:50:08 PM
Droid attacks
Sounds like a new Starwars movie. I guess that being alerted to malware is better than not being alerted but when is Google going to let these apps get rid of the malware? Or are they waiting to put out a google created app?
User Rank: Apprentice
12/18/2013 | 9:57:24 AM
I'm tired of misinformed articles about Android security.  It makes sense not to allow any 3rd party application out of the sandbox, and there is no need to, despite the news hype.  Read up:
User Rank: Apprentice
12/18/2013 | 11:50:08 AM
Re: Misinformed
steveb2005 is bang on. Come on guys, stop with the scare-mongering.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/19/2013 | 6:08:47 AM
Re: Misinformed
Engineering rationales are fine, but some people will end up with malware on their system. So, given Android's mass adoption now, I think the Windows analogy is apt:

1) If your PC gets infected by a virus, do you want it to be quarantined?
2) If your Android tablet gets infected by a virus, do you want it to be quarantined?

I'd argue that the average consumer would answer "yes" to both questions. 

As you say, the malware threat is overstated. To add to that: Bigger-picture, Google -- or an AV vendor that it taps, or any OEM -- could build AV capabilties into Android. That way, you wouldn't have the risk of a third-party application escaping the sandbox. 
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