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700,000 malicious Android apps found in Google Play store last year

Clampdown on Android security as Google focuses on dodgy developers

Google has confirmed that it had to remove nearly 700,000 potentially malicious apps from the Google Play store in 2017 – an increase of 70% from the previous year. 

News of this vast number of risky apps was first posted on a blog post on Google’s Android Developer website. It’s yet another incident in a season of tech security revelations, following the Spectre and Meltdown processor vulnerabilities (which are still not fully resolved) and a recent analysis by Malwarebytes indicating a vast rise in ransomware threats.

The announcement follows a sustained effort on Google’s part to combat potential security threats to the Android operating system. It’s recently developed the Google Play Protect security hub for Android, which includes app scanning and vetting.

Learn more about protecting your Android device with Google Play Protect

I have an Android phone, is my data safe?

Almost certainly. The good news is that Google states it was able to remove 99% of the apps with ‘abusive’ content that violated the Play Store’s terms of service. The tech giant says it acted before any Android user had an opportunity to install them.

The company also managed to identify and ban 100,000 bad and abusive developers – hopefully limiting the number of harmful apps reaching the Play Store in the future.

Unless you’ve downloaded a malicious app – which, with the 99% success rate of Google’s app removal system, seems unlikely – your data will be secure. It’s important to stick to the official Google Play app store when downloading apps to your Android device.

How can I keep my phone and data secure?

Be vigilant

The most common type of malicious app Google discovered were so-called ‘copycat’ applications. These apps mimic the appearance of famous apps like WhatsApp, hoping to trick people into accidentally downloading them.

One way to spot a copycat app is by checking the name and website of the app developer. If they don’t seem right, it’s a sign that the app may not be official. Check also for user reviews – apps with hundreds or thousands of downloads and ratings are most likely safe.

Check your permissions

Android is great at highlighting which areas of your phone apps are able to look at, and these can be reviewed and controlled from the main settings app on your phone. Does that free-to-play game you’ve just downloaded really need access to your camera?

Use Google Play Protect

Last year, Google introduced its very own mobile security app for Android devices, called Google Play Protect. This comes pre-installed on most Android devices. It scans for malware, blocks potentially dangerous websites and has anti-theft features to help keep your phone and data secure.

Stick to the Google Play store

To stay as safe as possible, only download Android apps from Google’s own Play store. One of the ‘advantages’ of Android over Apple iOS is that users have the option of installing apps from alternative stores or direct from the web. However, this can be risky in terms of guaranteed app security.

Amazon Fire tablets run a modified version of the Android operating system, and are locked to using the Amazon app store only.

Why can’t Google keep the Play store completely secure?

Android, Google’s mobile operating system (OS), is an ‘open source’ operating system. This means that anyone, with the right coding skills, can effectively create content and applications for the operating system and put them on the Play Store.

This can make Android and the Play Store sound like a bit of a wild west, with bandit developers riding roughshod over app customers – especially compared to Apple’s tightly guarded iOS. But Android users shouldn’t be unduly worried – the majority of popular apps are secure to download and obvious to find in the Google Play store.

It’s worth remembering that Android isn’t the only operating system that give developers such flexibility. In fact, the most popular operating system in the world, Microsoft’s venerable Windows platform, lets you install programs from all sorts of corners of the web.

Android security on the up

Google is making the Play Store more secure than ever. In its blog post, the company touted its increased success at sniffing out and removing bad apps, citing improved machine learning models and techniques.

‘Machine learning’ is one of the big buzzwords in the tech industry right now. It describes the process of computers intuiting how to spot trends and patterns based on constantly evolving information.

This means that, in theory, Google’s systems should get better and better at spotting bad apps. Some apps may still make it through the screening process, but Google says it takes these threats ‘extremely seriously’, and states its ambition is to make the Play Store ‘the most trusted and safe app store in the world’.

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