Free antivirus apps could be putting your phone at risk — avoid these Android apps

Android malware botnet attack
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Android users should always be careful about installing apps from strange developers, even if they’re coming from the Google Play Store. But according to a new report, you should be especially careful about installing free antivirus and "cleaning" apps when trying to protect your phone from malware and other cyber nastiness.

According to Cybernews, many of those free antivirus apps are actually a liability, as its research has found that those apps can contain trackers and links to potentially malicious websites. That's the exact opposite thing you want from an app designed to protect you.

Researchers studied the forty highest-ranking cleaning and antivirus apps on Google Play, all of which have a combined 918 million downloads. It turns out only two of those apps didn’t contain any trackers, while six of them contained potentially malicious links.

13 of those apps were considered such poor quality, thanks to “questionable coding practices” that the Cybernews research team gave them the lowest possible score in its security ranking system.

Of the bad apps, Keep Clean Cleaner, Antivirus scored the best, with a rating of 54 out of 100. Meanwhile ‘Safe Security - Antivirus, Booster, Phone Cleaner’ and ‘Nova Security - Virus Cleaner’ both came out at the bottom with scores of 9 and 10, respectively.

When it comes to malicious links, ‘Dr.Capsule Antivirus, Cleaner’ came off the worst, with three potentially malicious links. Other apps like ‘GO Security - Antivirus, AppLock, Booster’ and ‘Virus Hunter 2021 Virus Scanner and Phone Cleaner’ each had two. 

As for the trackers, ‘Nova Security - Virus Cleaner’ came out worst, with 30 of the things. “3 were also found in ‘Fancy Booster - Cleaner, Antivirus & Speed Up’ and ‘Antivirus, Virus Cleaner, Booster - Fancy security'. 

Cybernews also noted that two of the top forty antivirus apps could not be analyzed, something researchers claim may be due to obfuscation. The report notes that this method is often used to counter reverse-engineering, for guarding intellectual property or hiding something malicious. But in this case it’s not clear what the reason might be.

Only one developer responded to requests for comments by the time the report went live. The Dr. Capsule developers claim that confusion between http and the secure https caused the app to be flagged as potentially malicious by mistake.

Cybernews notes that the total installation count suggests ordinary Android users are “eager to secure their phones from malware and interested in keeping their devices running as fast as possible by cleaning junk files and cache.”

“Less tech-savvy users are likely to download an app to do all of this tedious work automatically. However, a lot of the free available options come at a hidden price – user data is being tracked, sold or plainly managed insecurely due to questionable coding and privacy practices of the application developers," the report noted. 

In other words you have to be careful about what you install, even if those apps are supposed to keep your device running properly. If you are in need of an antivirus app for your Android device, be sure to check out our list of the best Android antivirus apps.

These apps can detect malware and prevent it from being installed, alongside privacy and anti-theft features. The majority are also either free, or have a free tier to get you started, and come from big names like Avast, Norton, Bitdefender, Google and more. In other words, the kind of antivirus software you know you can trust.

You can see Cybernews’ free antivirus ranking tables in full over on its website.

Tom Pritchard
UK Phones Editor

Tom is the Tom's Guide's UK Phones Editor, tackling the latest smartphone news and vocally expressing his opinions about upcoming features or changes. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining about how terrible his Smart TV is.