Mobile Apps: Friend or Foe

Smartphones, smartphones, smartphones…. what would we do without them? My husband makes a point to regularly tell me how glued to mine I am. I’d say it’s a millennial thing, but my mom is glued to hers as well….so maybe it’s just a society thing now.

Smartphones are such an integrated part of our lives now that it’s hard to imagine living in today’s world without them. We have all of the information one could possibly need at our fingertips. Gone are the days of debating with your friend over who is right and who is wrong. The answer can be found with a quick Google search! (Or a Bing search if you are an absolute madman!)

We no longer need to carry 3+ devices just to to listen to music, make phone calls and take photos because the little computer in our pocket can do all of that for us.

In addition to all of those fancy built-in features that come with smartphones, there is a wide variety of apps that can be installed to increase the functionality of our phones.

There is honestly an app for everything. If you have had a few too many drinks at the company happy hour, use the Uber app to get a ride home. Don’t feel like going grocery shopping? The Instacart app has you covered. They’ll deliver whatever you want right to your door. Want to send your friends a video that is limited to 10 seconds and disappears after 24 hours? Snapchat is the app for you.

It’s true, the world of mobile apps is a vast one and it’s important to know that not all apps are created equally. While some apps may just be pointless and take up space on your phone, there are also plenty of apps that are dangerous and malicious. From spying on citizens to straight-up malware, apps can be detrimental to your smartphone’s health and even your privacy.

Apps That Spy

Most apps require you grant them some combination of permissions to your phone. These permissions vary, but they can include access to your photos, access to your documents, access to your camera, and access to your microphone. In certain cases, these permissions are necessary. For example, if you are using an app to facilitate video chat (such as Skype), then it makes sense that the app will need to use your microphone and camera. However, a mobile game that doesn’t use voice or video shouldn’t require these permissions. Because we as smartphone users, are so used to seeing these permission requests when we install a new app, we rarely stop to read what we are actually granted permission to.

One of the most abused app permissions is GPS location. GPS location can access your exact location. Apps like Google Maps, Waze, and Uber will obviously require location data. If you are using the “check-in” feature of an app then it will also require location data. However, location data can be used by companies to collect data on you, and more maliciously, attackers can use location data to load location-based attacks or malware.

TikTok and WeChat

Mobile spyware applications aren’t just used by individual attackers either. Governments also leverage them as a way to gather intelligence. I’ve singled out TikTok because it’s one that you’ve probably heard of and it’s made global news. Both CNBC and The New York Times reported that the United States government were launching a federal investigation into TikTok. American intelligence officials deemed that TikTok was a tool used by the United Arab Emirates to track conversations, movements, sounds and images of those who install it on their phones.

Another app to be wary of is WeChat, a Chinese created app used for messaging, chat, dating, and social media. WeChat is one of the most reliable ways to communicate with China from other countries. Unfortunately, that reliability comes at the price of privacy. The Chinese government censors and surveils it’s citizens and anyone visiting the country. Due to these concerns, the University of California actually warned students and faculty not to use WeChat while visiting Chine for fear that their messages would be intercepted and used against them by the China’s law enforcement agencies according to CNN.

Apps That Infect

Aside from apps spying on your communication, it’s also important to ensure that apps downloaded are not infecting your phone with malware. According the popular mobile antivirus provider Lookout, they have discovered 238 unique applications available for mobile apps that include BeiTaPlugin, an adware that renders a mobile device nearly unusable. All of the apps released with BeitaPlugin were published by amobile internet company, CooTek, founded in 2008 in Shanghai. The most popular app released by CooTek with this plugin is the TouchPal keyboard. The TouchPal app has 100,000,000+ installs.

Protecting Yourself

Now that you know the risks of malicious apps, how can you keep yourself safe? The first step is to ensure that your phone has antivirus. Many people believe that phones are immune to viruses and malware but that isn’t the case. Having a paid antivirus program such as Sophos, Webroot, Lookout, and ESET installed on your mobile device can help keep you safe. The next step is to do research on any mobile app before you install it. Doing a simple Google search can help you quickly identify known-bad apps. In addition, research the app developer. Check reviews for the developer online and check out their websites. Finally, as I mentioned earlier in the article, check the app permissions. Consider what types of applications will need what types of permissions. If an app requires permissions to every aspect of your phone, consider whether or not you really need that app. It may not be worth downloading at all.

As always, the best way to combat malware is with sound judgement.  
Photo by Jayson Hinrichsen on Unsplash

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