Debate erupts over Android malware dangers

Security companies hype malware explosion; Google and analysts say 'No big deal'

Reports of an explosion in Android malware have sparked a debate over whether malware on mobile devices is actually a big deal for most users.

On the one side are security software vendors such as McAfee and Juniper that have both released reports in recent days detailing a sharp rise in the amount of mobile malware targeting devices based on Google's Android operating system. Juniper got the ball rolling when it released a study showing "a 472% increase in Android malware samples" since July, or roughly the same percentage increase in Android malware Juniper witnessed from the start of 2009 through the summer of 2010. McAfee added fuel to the controversy this week when it reported that Android had become "the exclusive platform for all new mobile malware" over this past quarter.

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So with mobile malware growing so rapidly, Android users should be freaked out about getting their devices infected, right? Not so fast, says Google open source programs manager Chris DiBona. In a post on his personal Google+ page last week, DiBona accused the antivirus vendors of overhyping the significance of mobile malware and said that the chances of a mobile virus spreading from phone to phone in the same way viruses often spread from computer to computer was "not probable." He also said that security vendors were vastly overstating the dangers that users faced when they downloaded applications from mobile app stores since companies have typically been vigilant about removing malicious apps quickly from their markets.

"All the major vendors have app markets and all the major vendors have apps that do bad things, are discovered and are dropped from the markets," he wrote. "Yes, virus companies are playing on your fears to try to sell you BS protection software for Android, RIM and iOS. They are charlatans and scammers."

DiBona got some backing for his views from Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg, who told John Martellaro of Mac Observer that malware on Android devices is only a real problem for users who "sideload" applications onto their devices from third-party websites instead of getting their apps from Google's Android Market. And since Google has been fairly vigilant in purging malicious apps from the Android Market, Gartenberg says that "customers don't need to be afraid to install apps" they find on the store.

"Perhaps the bigger problem is badly written apps, apps that burn up the network and your battery," Gartenberg told Mac Observer.

Martellaro also interviewed PC Magazine's Sascha Segan, who echoed Gartenberg's belief that "there isn't much of a problem" with malware for most Android users so long as they "stick to the Android Market for apps and stay away from independent sites."

Earlier this year Google had to remove around 50 malware-infected applications from its Android Market by activating an Android app kill switch that remotely erased malicious apps from users' devices. The presence of malware on the Android Market highlighted some of the risks for Android users since Google has mostly taken an "anything goes" approach to screening applications for sale on its Android Market that relies primarily on users to flag potentially malicious apps so they can be removed after they've already posted on the store.

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