Can Chromebooks Get Viruses?

It's possible, yes. Chromebook malware is a real security risk

Chromebooks are inherently more secure than other computers due to their design. You might have heard claims that viruses don't exist on Chrome OS. Although it's a bold claim, it's accurate in a very narrow sense.

The big picture, however, is more complicated than that. Malicious parties can target Chromebooks with malware. They use features like Android apps on Chrome OS or run Linux on a Chromebook to open the Chromebook to additional risk. Still, you can keep your Chromebook safe using Chrome OS if you're careful.

A fake virus warning displayed on a Chromebook.

Does a Chromebook Virus Exist?

Computer viruses are a type of malware that injects code into files. When a computer accesses the file or runs the process, the malicious code executes. At that point, the virus can perform harmful actions like destroying data and can replicate itself by spreading to other systems.

Chrome OS has several features that make it difficult, or even impossible, for computer viruses to infect Chromebooks. The first is that every time you reboot your Chromebook, it performs a self-check. If it finds any modifications to the system, like files that were modified by a virus, it automatically repairs itself.

The other feature prevents viruses from infecting files or stealing passwords in the first place by running separate browser windows, browser extensions, and Android apps in isolated environments called sandboxes.

Since each sandbox is separate from the rest of the system, a virus in one can't infect system files or files in another sandbox.

Chromebook Malware Is Still Worthy of Concern

While it's unlikely for a virus to infect a Chromebook, other malware types can slip through the cracks. Malware is a more general term that includes viruses, spyware, trojans, browser hijackers, rootkits, and other software designed with malicious intent.

The most potential for malware comes from browser extensions and Android apps. If you run unsandboxed browser extensions, you open your Chromebook to risk. Google does an excellent job of scanning Android apps for malware. Still, a malicious app can sneak into the store.

If the Chrome OS browser window is locked and displays a message that it has a virus, you either visited a malicious website or installed a malicious extension. You can usually fix this problem by restarting and uninstalling the extension. In worst-case scenarios, power washing a Chromebook fixes the problem.

Are Third-Party App Stores Dangerous?

Third-party app stores provide a method to obtain apps that aren't available through the official Google Play Store. These third-party stores sometimes offer free versions of apps that cost money in the Play Store, which should be a red flag that something is wrong.

Fake cryptocurrency wallets are one example of malware that can be installed through a third-party app. Real cryptocurrency wallets store, use, and withdraw bitcoin and other currencies. A fake one might potentially take your cryptocurrency, then not allow you to withdraw it.

Other malicious apps downloaded from third-party stores could masquerade as real apps but exist only to steal account information.

Is Running Linux on a Chromebook Dangerous?

Some Chromebooks can run Linux and Linux apps. Doing so was possible through a somewhat complicated process that involved turning on developer mode. The new method makes it more manageable.

When you run Linux on your Chromebook and install Linux apps, you open your computer to a malware infection danger. However, viruses and other malware are uncommon on Linux. So, while this increases the risk, it isn't by much.

How to Keep Your Chromebook Safe From Viruses and Other Malware

You can download and install antivirus software on a Chromebook through a browser extension or as an Android app. If you do, get the extension or app from the official Play Store, and install software from trusted names like Malwarebytes.

Even without antivirus software, the built-in security features of Chrome OS make it reasonably easy to stay safe. If you want to minimize your risk, consider some or all of these precautions:

  • Don't enable developer mode unless you need it: While this is a powerful tool, you may not need it. Some Chromebooks can run Linux without enabling developer mode.
  • Don't use third-party app stores: Google monitors the apps that appear in the Play Store, but not the third-party app stores. Use these unofficial sources of apps and extensions at your own risk.
  • Pay attention to what you install: When you install an app or extension, pay attention to its permission requests. If it seems out of line, check the reviews and comments that the app received, or search the internet to make sure it's legitimate.
  • Don't put off Chromebook updates: Chrome OS is good at keeping itself secure, but holding off on updates can open the Chromebook to new vulnerabilities. Whenever a new update becomes available for your Chromebook, install it as soon as you can.
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