February 2, 2012 | by Andrew Kameka
Maybe mobile anti-virus companies are charlatans after all. Google’s Chris DiBona infamously applied that label to companies selling mobile anti-virus software through fear-mongering, and Symantec made a huge mistake recently that doesn’t help dispel DiBona’s characterization of the industry.
On Friday afternoon, Symantec sounded the alarm and said an outbreak of malware known as Android.Counterclank may have infected up to 5 million users. A number of “malicious” apps with sneaky permissions had made their way into the Android Market and were putting devices at risk.
Rival security company Lookout then jumped in and told Symantec that it was wrong. The alleged malware was really just adware – apps that installed unwanted browser and homescreen shortcuts without the user’s express permission. That’s a shameful way of spamming users, and grounds for immediate removal if I see it on my device, but it’s a very different situation than the doomed scenario painted by Symantec. There was no malware, which the company eventually admitted.
And that’s the problem with these “mass outbreaks of malware” reports from security companies that keep popping up. Almost always there’s an accusation, a question of how accurate that is, and then the company backtracking from its original statement with egg on its face. Symantec was not the first such company, and it probably won’t be the last. As long as smartphone usage keeps growing rapidly and there’s money to be made off playing to user fears, mobile anti-virus companies will continue to cry wolf. We try to downplay the scares and use them as an opportunity to remind users to check their permissions when installing apps, but perhaps we’re part of the problem my mentioning them at all. Maybe we should do a better job of explicitly pointing out when companies seem to be full of crap.
Maybe mobile security companies should change their whole approach. Symantec was right to call attention to apps aggressively spamming users; however, it made a critical error in labeling them as “malware” instead of the more accurate “adware” label. Had I known that Symantec could warn me about an app that changes my browser’s homepage, adds and removes bookmarks, or installs shortcuts to websites on my homepage, I’d find that to be rather useful. If ads start showing up in my notification bar and I can’t figure out which app is responsible or how to disable it, it would be good to have an app that could point it out. Why take the leap into labeling it an anti-virus scan when that mischaracterizes the issue and brings up an old way of thinking on desktops?
The issue is even more muddled now that Google has revealed “Bouncer,” a service that already automatically scans apps for malware or intrusive code. Why would anyone need Kasperksy, Lookout, Norton, or any other security app for that purpose if Google is already scanning Market apps?
If mobile security companies want to stay relevant, they should focus less on the mobile malware scare tactics and more on alerting users about the questionable practices of some app developers and mobile websites. They can also play up their services like lost phone location, call blocking, and storage management, valuable features that users will embrace. That makes more sense than hunting a malware ghost that isn’t haunting anyone.