Geraldine Strawbridge

Geraldine Strawbridge is a graduate from the University of Glasgow. As the Editor of Cyber Radio, Geraldine is focused on delivering the latest cyber security news whilst making cyber security more relatable to people in their everyday lives.

Mobile Apps – Are they safe to download? 

The app industry is booming! Global app downloads and consumer spending in apps has been growing at a rapid rate. In just the first quarter of 2018, Google Play and iOS downloads grew more than 10%, reaching 27.5 billion, the highest figure to date.  

This is an area that shows no signs of slowing down as we continue to use our smart phones for everything internet related. Whether we’re online shopping, banking, socialising or working, our phones provide us with the easiest and quickest method to access this information. They also hold a wealth of personal information about us. 

Our increasing reliance on the smartphone has led to a massive growth in the mobile app market. There are apps available for pretty much every function you can think of whether it’s for games, banking, weather, social media, TV channels or cooking – you name it, there’s an app!  

To download an app, users will typically go to a reputable online store which is aimed specifically at their device. If you have an iPhone you will buy apps from the Apple App store and if you have an Android phone, you’ll go to the Google Play store. There are also a range of third party platforms that are not controlled by a mobile provider. 

Downloading apps from third party sites can be very tempting however this puts us at a much greater risk of our device being hacked or infected with malware. Despite a large number of third party app stores being perfectly legitimate, there will be a proportion that are dangerous and set up solely to infect devices with malicious programmes or steal sensitive data. 

Apps downloaded from third party sources can be used to: 

  • Access contact lists
  • Track location 
  • Monitor online activity 
  • Send text messages to premium numbers 
  • Take advantage of vulnerabilities in phone 
  • Infect device with malware  
  • Turn device into bot 
  • Steal sensitive data  

How do I know which Apps are safe? 

There will always be security risks when downloading apps however there are a range of preventative measures that users can take to reduce the risk of downloading a dodgy app. 

 1. Only buy Apps from trusted sources 

Buying apps from trustworthy sources reduces the chance of your device being hacked or infected with malware. Big brands such as Apple, Google Play and other third-party sources such as Amazon will take great care to ensure they do not damage their reputation by distributing malware. 

To check the authenticity of a source, you can check the full name, list of published apps and contact details in the app description within the Google Play store. 

 2.Check Permissions 

 Permissions are used by apps to access specific functions and data within the device. Different apps require different permissions depending on which area of the phone they need to interact with. Some apps overstep the mark and ask for permission to areas of the phone that are not required. For example: if you are downloading a games app there is no need for it to have access to your contact lists. 

 If an app has a long list of permissions that are unnecessary to the functioning of an app this should act as a red flag and raise suspicions about the intent of its use. The fewer permissions an app requests, the more likely it is to be safe. 

 An app might typically ask for the below permissions: 

  • Full Internet access 
  • Take pictures and videos 
  • Prevent device from going to sleep 
  • Modify/delete storage content 
  • Access location 
  • Read text messages 
  • Access contacts 

 3. Learn about the developer 

Take some time to research the developer of the app. Most app stores will include a link to the developer’s web page and this will give you a good idea if they are a reputable source. It is worth checking if the site has: 

  • A professional website 
  • Clear security policies 
  • Contact information  
  • A policy for the disclosure of personal information 

 4. Update phone software 

One of the most important ways to protect against malware is to regularly update your phone’s software. Malicious apps will often take advantage of older versions of browsers therefore it is vital that the latest software update is installed. Anti-virus software can also detect threats on your mobile and block unauthorised users from gaining access.