Mobile platforms are not free from malware. That's why experts tend to recommend anti-malware protection for all mobile device users and platforms, assuming, of course, that the anti-malware software works. But new research on 21 Android anti-malware apps indicates this may be a very bad assumption.
Comparitech, which performs product reviews and comparisons, tested 21 separate anti-malware packages for Android and found 47% of them failed in some way. The protection software came from companies both large and small, with roughly a quarter coming from companies including AVL, ESET, Webroot, and Malwarebytes that also have desktop anti-malware products.
"We basically put test viruses on a bunch of Android phones and then ran them all through the various antivirus programs. Most of [the products that failed] just didn't see the virus," says Paul Bischoff, editor at Comparitech. A total of eight products missed the Metasploit payload used to test the anti-malware software: AEGISLAB Antivirus Free, Antiy AVL Pro Antivirus & Security, Brainiacs Antivirus System, Fotoable Super Cleaner, MalwareFox Anti-Malware, NQ Mobile Security & Antivirus Free, Tap Technology Antivirus Mobile, and Zemana Antivirus & Security.
The failures come at a time when malicious Android software is becoming more of a problem. Lukas Stefanko, a malware researcher at ESET who compiled data on malware found on the Google Play store, found that in the month of July, Google hosted 205 harmful apps that were downloaded more than 32 million times. The most common malware, and downloaded most often, was in the form of hidden advertising malware, with subscription scams downloaded next most frequently, followed by stalkerware.
As bad as the missed malware may be, Comparitech's report found three anti-malware apps that had more serious flaws — flaws that could actively endanger the privacy or security of the user. VIPRE Mobile, AegisLab, and BullGuard were each found to have critical issues.
VIPRE Mobile, for example, could leak users' address books to attackers because of poorly implemented access control. The other apps had critical issues, as well. Comparitech reports it disclosed these vulnerabilities to the vendors during testing and that all have been patched, with the patches verified through additional testing.
According to Bischoff, one critical lesson from Comparitech's testing is that organizations should perform their own tests before deploying any mobile anti-malware in the field. In addition to testing for basic efficacy, "You also need to take into account whether the apps are tracking you," he warns.
He points out that some antivirus companies have been known to track user devices and be very aggressive in refusing to cancel subscriptions or change licensing terms. "There are a lot of things that an enterprise should take into consideration, whether it's performance or whether they want their employees to be tracked by a third-party company through the app," Bischoff says.
Privacy and security are, after all, two different things, he points out. "Even though these apps protect you from malicious attacks, they don't protect you from themselves," Bischoff says.