Can Chromebooks Get Viruses?

Chromebook malware is a real security risk

A fake virus warning displayed on a Chromebook.

Chromebooks are inherently more secure than other computers due to the way they're designed. You may have even heard claims that viruses don't exist on Chrome OS, which is a bold claim that's more or less true in a very narrow sense.

The big picture is a lot more complicated than that. Malicious parties can absolutely target Chromebooks with malware; using features like Android apps on Chrome OS, or running Linux on your Chromebook, open you up to some level of additional risk. The good news is Chrome OS was designed with security in mind, so it's pretty easy to stay relatively safe if you're careful about it.

Does a Chromebook Virus Exist?

Computer viruses are a specific type of malware designed to inject code into files. When the file is accessed, or process is ran, the malicious code executes. At that point, the virus can perform harmful actions like destroying data, and will usually also replicate itself by spreading to other systems.

Chrome OS has a number of features that make it very 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 have been modified by a virus, it will automatically repair itself.

The other feature helps prevent viruses from infecting files or stealing passwords in the first place. This is accomplished by running individual browser windows, browser extensions, and even Android apps in isolated environments called sandboxes that can't access each other or the system itself.

Since each sandbox is cut off from the rest of the system, a virus in one of these sandboxes is incapable of infecting system files or files in another sandbox.

Chromebook Malware is Still Worthy of Concern

While it may be extremely unlikely for a virus to infect a Chromebook, other types of malware 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.

Most of the potential for malware to infect your Chromebook comes from browser extensions and Android apps. If you choose to run unsandboxed browser extensions, you open yourself up to more risk. And while Google does a good job of scanning Android apps for malware, it's always possible for a malicious app to sneak into the store.

If your Chrome OS browser window is locked and displays a message that you have a virus, you've either visited a malicious website or installed a malicious extension. You can usually fix this problem by restarting and uninstalling the extension. In a worst case scenario, powerwashing your Chromebook will take care of 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 even offer free versions of apps that cost money in the Play Store, which should be a red flag that something is up.

Fake cryptocurrency wallets are just one example of malware that you could end up installing through as a third-party app. Real cryptocurrency wallets allow you to store, use, and withdraw bitcoin and other currencies, but 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, like Facebook Messenger or Telegram, but exist only to steal your account information. These are only hypothetical examples, but they show the type of trouble you can open yourself up to if you install apps from unknown sources.

Is Running Linux on a Chromebook Dangerous?

Some Chromebooks have the ability to run Linux, and Linux apps. This was always possible through a somewhat complicated process that involved turning on developer mode, but the new method makes it a whole lot easier.

When you run Linux on your Chromebook, and install Linux apps, you technically open yourself up to a larger danger of malware infection. However, viruses and other malware are very uncommon on Linux. So, while this technically increases your risk, it isn't by a whole lot.

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 so, make sure to get your extension or app from the official Play Store, and stick with trusted names like Malwarebytes.

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

  • Don't enable developer mode unless you need it: While this is a powerful tool, most regular users don't need it. Some Chromebooks are even capable of running Linux without enabling developer mode.
  • Don't use third-party app stores: Google does a pretty good job of monitoring apps that appear in the Play Store, but the same can't be said of 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 the permissions that it requests. If it seems out of line, check the reviews and comments that the app has received, or search the internet to make sure that the app is legitimate.
  • Don't put off Chromebook updates: Chrome OS is really good at keeping itself secure, but holding off on updates can open you up to new vulnerabilities. Whenever a new update becomes available for your Chromebook, install it as soon as you can.