The Essential Android Security App Buyer's Guide

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If you’re carrying an Android phone or are eyeing the purchase of one, you’ve got plenty of company. Google’s mobile operating system is growing by leaps and bounds, and IT research firm Gartner predicts it will grow from about a fifth to nearly half the market by the end of next year.


The flip side of Android’s growing popularity is that of the major smartphone platforms, Android is arguably the most vulnerable from a security standpoint due to the open nature of the operating system and its laissez-faire approach to app publishing (at least relative to the iPhone App Store). In fact, nearly two dozen apps were recently purged from the Android Market after they were discovered to contain malware.

Using a PC that lacks antivirus software isn’t an especially good idea and using an Android phone without an antivirus protection is similarly asking for trouble. Moreover, since your phone is chock full of personal data and easy to lose (or steal), you’ll want the ability locate your missing phone remotely, lock it down while it’s out of your custody, and if you fear the worst (i.e., never seeing it again), wipe away its contents to keep the information from prying eyes.

Read on for a selection of a dozen apps that will provide protection against malware, loss or theft of your phone, and other security-oriented features such as secure password management and data encryption. (Note for paid apps, links provided are to trial versions, when available.)


Antivirus and loss protection

For the low price of free, Lookout Mobile Security provides virus/malware scanning, backup of your contacts, and the ability to remotely locate a missing phone and activate an audible alarm on it; even if the phone’s set to silent mode.

Coughing up $3 per month (or $30 per year) for a subscription to Lookout’s Premium version gets you some useful added features, including a Privacy Advisor that lists the apps that have access to your personal information, the ability to transfer your data over to a new phone, and a remote wipe and lock function.

Aside from comprehensive antivirus scanning (of apps, websites, e-mail, SMS content, and media files)AVG Mobilation Antivirus Free (formerly known as DroidSecurity) checks your device for potentially insecure settings (such as allowing the download of apps from unknown sources) and backs up various kinds of phone data, such as contacts, call logs, bookmarks, and text messages. It also provides remote location/lock/and wipe capabilities at no charge, along with the ability to display a custom message on your errant phone’s screen.

There’s also a paid version of AVG Mobilation Antivirus available for a flat $9.99, which eliminates ads, adds an Applocker feature to password protect access to individual apps, and includes protection against SMS spam. Or , if you want, for $3, you can just add Applocker ala carte to AVG’s free version.

Although Norton Mobile Security is still in beta, it’s highly polished and worth a look. In addition to antivirus protection and remote locate/lock/wipe, it offers call and SMS screening and guards against phishing attempts.

Those with GSM devices (AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S.) will appreciate that Norton Mobile Security automatically locks the phone if the SIM is removed so the phone won’t work with a replacement SIM.

Webroot Mobile Security Basic, the company’s free offering, delivers a decent set of security features, including antivirus scanning, device locate and lock, and call and SMS blocking. For $14.99, the app drops the “Basic” moniker and adds remote device wipe, a Settings Audit that checks your device for configuration vulnerabilities, and App Inspector that lets you know what data and phone features your apps have the ability to access.

For its part, Trend Micro Mobile Security is a bargain at a mere $3.99 for a one-year subscription. The catch is that is lacks any remote locate, lock, or wipe capabilities, though along with protection against viruses and malware (plus call and text filtering) it offers a fairly unique feature in the form of parental controls for Web content, which can be handy if your phone frequently finds its way into your child’s hands.

In contrast to Trend Micro’s offering, McAfee WaveSecure, which costs $20.00 for a one year subscription, takes essentially the opposite tack: It doesn’t actually provide any antivirus protection, but does offer remote location, lock and wipe (plus data backup you can initiate from your phone or from a website. (Note: The labeling of the Android Market link above is a bit misleading; though the app is listed as free, it’s actually a 7-day trial.)

McAfee also offers WaveSecure UPA, a free add-on module that automatically locks the phone if someone attempts to remove the WaveSecure software. (Note: If you have Android 2.2 Froyo or higher, you don’t need this add-on. You can instead set WaveSecure as a device administrator via Location and Security settings by selecting device administrators.)

Password management

For a buck a month (or more specifically, an $12 annual subscription) LastPass is hard to beat. It stores your website credentials securely online, logs you into sites automatically, and lets you also access your centralized login info using virtually any other desktop, browser, or mobile platform known to humankind thanks to an wide range of LastPass versions and plug-ins. LastPass also offers an extension that works with Android’s Dolphin Browser HD.

For $4.99, mSecure – Password Manager stores passwords -- and other kinds of sensitive information such as bank account and credit card numbers -- on your device with 256-bit Blowfish encryption. It also includes a strong password generator (you can get this feature stand-alone, and for free, with the company’s mPassGen) and a hint feature to help you remember your master password if you forget it. (Be careful with that, though.) mSecure- Password Manager can sync data with mSeven Software’s companion products for Windows and Mac systems.

For a free tool that can protect passwords and other sensitive data types, check out B-Folders – Sync and Secure.


Data encryption

It’s not quite ready for prime time, but Whisper Systems’ WhisperCore, currently in early beta is worth watching, as it provides full-disk encryption (as opposed to encrypting only selected types of data) for Android devices and installed SD cards, too. Currently, the beta only works with Google’s own Nexus S and Nexus One, but support for other devices is planned.

Also of interest from Whisper Systems are RedPhone, which offers encryption for voice calls using your regular phone number and the normal Android dialer, and TextSecure that does the same for text messages (it also stores received messages in encrypted form).

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7 from Friends of Ed.