Is Google Play Safe?

Protect your Android from malware

For most people, Google Play is their first stop when finding new apps to download to their Chromebook or Android device, and for good reason. It's the official app store from Google, nearly all apps are available through it, and you'd think you're completely safe from downloading malware and fake apps.

Unfortunately, Google Play isn't 100 percent safe. As we'll learn below, there have been multiple instances where malware made its way through Google Play and onto millions of devices, without users or Google knowing about it until it was too late.

Google Play logo
Google

There is good news, though! Google Play has safeguards in place to combat malicious apps, and although malware evolves quickly, there are also things you can do on your own to prevent your phone or other device from being infected with Google Play viruses.

Google Play Malware

By default, Android devices are safe from "drive-by downloads," or malicious code that gets downloaded to your device without your consent. Unless you manually change the security settings, you'll always receive a notification before any new software is downloaded or installed, and you can only download "known" apps from Google Play. In other words, the only way to get a virus on your Android device is to willingly download it.

Unfortunately, cybercriminals have become very creative when it comes to hiding malware inside seemingly harmless apps and uploading them to Google Play. Once the app is available on the official app store, millions of users will have no problem assuming it's safe and downloading it without a second thought.

Here are just a few examples of malware on Google Play:

  • In 2019, ESET researches revealed dozens of adware on Google Play, many of which were there for over a year without being detected.
  • In 2018, Forbes reported that half-a-million Android users downloaded a virus from Google Play that was disguised as a racing game.
  • In 2017, Check Point Software Technologies discovered an Android virus that charged users’ phone bills for fraudulent text messages hidden within 50 apps. The infected apps were collectively downloaded up to 21.1 million times before Google removed them.
  • Also in 2017 was a fake WhatsApp app that resembled the real one so closely that it was downloaded a million times before anybody noticed. It showed up Google Play as an update to WhatsApp, but really installed a hidden app that made money by displaying ads.

As often as viruses show up on Google Play, it should be noted that there are plenty of virus-free apps. It might sound like Google Play is riddled with malware, but the truth is that only a small fraction of apps you can download through Google Play are actually harmful.

When compared to Apple’s App Store, Google Play’s track record with malware is less than stellar mainly because Google and Apple have very different approaches to apps. Learn about viruses on iPhones for more information.

What Can Infected Apps Do?

Malicious apps can do lots of damage. Some are admittedly less harmful than others, but it's important to know just how serious Google Play malware can be.

Here are just a few examples of what a virus on your phone, tablet, or other Android device can do:

  • Display pop-up ads that generate money for the developer.
  • Locate your email addresses and phone number.
  • Extract details from your contact list.
  • Find your GPS coordinates.
  • Steal messages.
  • Copy your passwords and log in to your accounts remotely.
  • Mine cryptocurrency on your device and send the funds back to the developer.
  • Use SMS tricks to make you pay for services you didn't ask for.
  • Redirect browser pages to fake login screens and ad sites.
  • Open your device up for more attacks in the future.

How Google Play Is Combating Malware

We know that malware gets through the app store, and we know just how much damage they can cause if installed. The good news is that Google isn't abandoning us.

Google started taking malware in its app store seriously in 2012 with the launch of a security feature called Bouncer. Bouncer would scan Android Market (now called Google Play) for malware and eliminate suspicious apps before they could reach users. In the year it was released, the number of infectious apps on the mobile store dropped by 40 percent, but security experts quickly found flaws in the system and cybercriminals learned to disguise their malicious apps to subvert Bouncer.

Google later introduced a built-in malware scanner for Android devices called Google Play Protect. While it scans over 50 billion apps each and every day, it isn't always effective. In comparative studies of various antivirus software, Google Play Protect consistently ranks last.

Finally, a human review process for apps was implemented in 2016, and deeper app reviews began in 2019 for developers that don't yet have a track record with Google. But even with Google's consistent attempts to thwart malware attempts made through Google Play, there will always be programmers that find a way in.

Bad actors are constantly finding new ways to evade Google’s anti-malware measures. They might have the malicious code remain encrypted until after the app has been published, or use similar names as authentic apps to fool the approval process.

It's a never-ending battle between Google releasing security enhancements to plug existing vulnerabilities and malicious programmers learning how to circumvent those changes. Google's attempts work, just not forever.

How to Tell If You Downloaded a Virus From Google Play

There are several ways to identify malware on your Android device:

  • Everything is suddenly much slower.
  • You see ads you've never seen before, especially in strange places.
  • The battery dies quickly.
  • You're experiencing strange screen redirects or overlays that you've never had to deal with before.
  • There's a download button in Google Play for an app you know you already have.
  • Apps you don't recognize are installed on your device.
  • You've recently become a victim of identity theft or strange charges.
  • An app is asking for lots of unnecessary permissions.

However, it's not always immediately obvious that an app you've downloaded is malicious. In fact, cybercriminals rely on ignorance to steal your data. After all, you haven't made any security setting changes and you've only downloaded a few apps, so you might have no reason to think you have a virus or a fake app.

For example, a slow phone could just mean you're low on storage, so you might not think twice about it. An overheating battery might appear to you as reason to get a new phone since yours is a few years old, while not suspecting that a virus is the cause.

Similarly, some of these symptoms of a virus don't necessarily confirm an infection. An app can ask for lots of permissions because it truly needs them for legitimate reasons, and unwanted charges on a credit card could be completely unrelated to a virus on your phone.

How to Stay Safe From Malware on Google Play

Although Google has tried to keep malware off of its platform, new reports of infected Google Play apps seem to pop up every year. But this doesn't have to scare us away from using Google Play; something to remember is that we, the users, are the last step before malware can be installed.

You can lower your risk of downloading malicious software by following some simple best practices for staying safe online. In the end, one of the best ways to not download viruses from Google Play is to learn how to stop them yourself.

  • Only download from reputable sources such as Google Play or the Amazon Appstore. Although Google Play isn't 100 percent safe from malware, it's safer than downloading unofficial apps.
  • Use a good Android antivirus app.
  • Research the app before downloading it. Read the reviews; users often rate an infected app poorly and will usually warn others through the reviews. Also look into the developer; what else have they made, what kind of reviews do their other apps have, do they have a website with more information?
  • Pay close attention to permissions that the app asks for so that you can avoid things like hidden administrator apps.
  • Don't root your device or change the default security settings.
  • Learn how to get rid of a virus on Android should one slip in.