As much as Apple and Google would like to try and claim otherwise, malicious apps or apps that could be easily exploited do make their way to the App Store and the Google Play Store. Just like anything else with a screen, it is very important to be aware of what you click and read popup boxes when they appear.
Just like every other computer system out there, you are as safe as you choose to be on mobile devices. Google and Apple do what they can to limit your exposure to the worst of what could exist in their respective app stores, but there’s still plenty of other apps that either walk the line between good and evil or are simply destined to get your in trouble eventually.
Recently the Google Play Store was home to an app that promised to bring Apple’s iMessage service to Android. It was made by a third party and had a few reviews that claimed parts of the service actually worked. It didn’t take long for the app to be pulled from the Google Play Store for obvious reasons, but the excitement that followed the appearance of this not-quite-iMessage on the Google Play Store is cause enough to really evaluate how and why you install apps on your smartphone and tablet.
The iMessage app that showed up on the Google Play Store didn’t appear to be intentionally malicious. The developer had figured out a clever way to basically redirect the messages through a Chinese hosted server that was hiding the source of the messages. The app was buggy and sometimes messages would only travel one way, but the dev made it clear that this was a work in progress.
The biggest problem with this kind of workaround is the lack of control. All of your messages and the messages sent by others to you were being sent through a server maintained by some random guy. He doesn’t work for Apple, and you know absolutely nothing about the kind of security he has or anything about the setup. Essentially, there’s no way to know what was really going on behind the scenes. Even if you assume he had the best of intentions, using iMessage Chat for Android was an all around bad idea.
Most of the time it’s much easier to tell when an app is a bad idea. A lot of things get pushed to the Google Play Store (and Apple’s App Store) just to see who they can ensnare before it gets pulled. The Halo 3 App that turned out to be a chess game and the dozens of BlackBerry Messenger apps that showed up on the Play Store alongside their recent failed launch are just a pair of examples that happen all the time on both platforms. These apps exist explicitly to be malicious and grab as much information from users as possible before the app gets removed by the maintainer of whichever app store they are targeting. Either way, there’s some pretty clear ways to avoid this kind of thing.
The best thing you can do to keep yourself safe is pay attention to what apps install. Every Play Store app specifically shows you what that software requests access to when it is installed on your device. If you’re installing a video game that wants access to your contacts list or your call and message history, for example, there’s a problem. These are all plainly spelled out before you install an app for Android.
Apple, on the other hand, lets the user choose when specific features are enabled after the app is installed. A popup asking if the app can have access to certain features on the phone will appear, and the user can choose to give the app access to that information or not. In either situation, it is very important to stop, read, and decide whether or not you really want to allow that app to have access to your data.
Before you even get to the install screen, however, you should carefully take a look its reviews. This is an important thing to do for two reasons. First, many app developers are in the habit of purchasing overly positive reviews to make their app look good on the first day. It’s important to look for the negative comments to see what they have to say. If you don’t see any negative comments, that’s the biggest red flag you can imagine.
Second, you should see what actual users think of the app — is especially important for Android users. The Google Play Store breaks up reviews into per device categories, so you can make sure people using the same Android phone or tablet as you have enjoyed the experience so far. In both cases, you will quickly find that negative comments with save you from installing potentially malicious apps on your device.
For many of us, this may seem like common sense stuff. It’s a variation of the same thing that has been true for a long time now with computers. Read before your click, understand what you are reading, and ask if you don’t understand. Don’t install something that looks shady, even if your friends tell you it is alright. Most people put deeply personal information on their smartphones, and installing an app from a third party that has access to that information is like asking a random stranger to walk into a room full of your personal information and not peek at anything you’ve left laying around. Even if it isn’t in their best interest to peek at that information, and even if they have the best of intentions, you’re still being asked to trust them to be as careful with your information as they are with their own.
You are as safe as you choose to be, plain and simple.
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