5 Reasons iPhone Is More Secure Than Android

iPhone vs. Android security
iPhone image copyright Apple; Galaxy image copyright Samsung

Last Updated: Aug. 2, 2014

Security isn't the first thing most people think of when they start shopping for a smartphone. We care a lot more about apps, ease of use, price—and that used to be right. But these days, now that most people have huge amounts of personal data on their phones, security is more important than ever.

When it comes to the security of your smartphone, which operating system you choose makes a big difference.

The ways in which operating systems are designed and maintained goes a long way to determining how secure your phone will be—and the leading options are very different.

If you care about having a secure phone, and keeping your personal data personal, there's only one smartphone choice: iPhone. Here's why:

Market Share: A Big Target

Market share can be a major determiner of an operating system's security. That's because virus writers, hackers, and cybercriminals want to have the biggest impact that they can and the best way to do that is to attack a very widely used platform. That's why Windows is the most-attacked operating system on the desktop.

On smartphones, Android has the largest marketshare—about 80% compared to iOS's 20% (there's a very strong argument to be made that marketshare doesn't matter: even though it only has 20% of the market, Apple makes 60-70% of the profit for the entire mobile  phone industry.

I'd always rather have more money and a smaller market share, but that's an argument for another article). Because of that, Android is the #1 smartphone target for hackers and criminals.

Even if Android had the best security in the world (which it doesn't, as we'll see), it would be virtually impossible for Google and its hardware partners to close every security hole, fight every virus, and stop every digital scam while still giving customers a device that's useful.

So, market share is a good thing to have, except when it comes to security.

Viruses and Malware: Android and Not Much Else

Given that Android is the biggest target for hackers, it should be no surprise that it has the most viruses, hacks, and malware attacking it. What may be a surprise is just how much more it has than the next most-attacked platforms.

According to one recent study, 97% of all malware attacking smartphones targets Android. That's simply mind boggling.

Even more amazing, according to this study 0% of the malware they found targeted the iPhone. The last 3% took aim at Nokia's old, but widely used, Symbian platform.

Sandboxing: Not Just For Playtime

If you're not a programmer this can be a complex one, but it's very important. The way Apple and Google have designed their operating systems, and the way they allow apps to run, is very different and leads to very different security situations.

Apple uses a technique called sandboxing. This means, essentially, that every app runs in its own walled-off space (a "sandbox") where it can do what it needs to, but can't really interact with other apps or, beyond a certain threshold, with the operating system. This means that even if an app did have malicious code or a virus in it, that attack couldn't get outside of the sandbox and do more damage.

(Apps will be able to communicate with each other more in iOS 8, but sandboxing will still be enforced.) Given that, it's not a surprise that hackers don't try to attack the iPhone too much.

On the other hand, Google designed Android for maximum openness and flexibility. That has a lot of benefits to users and developers, but it also means that the platform is more open to attacks. Even the head of Google's Android team admits that Android is less secure, saying:

"We can not guarantee that Android is designed to be safe, the format was designed to give more freedom ... If I had a company dedicated to malware, I should also be addressing my attacks on Android." 

That makes it pretty clear: Android is less secure than iPhone.

App Review: Sneak Attacks

Another place that security comes into play are the two platforms' app stores. Your phone can generally stay secure if you avoid getting a virus or hacked, but what if there's a virus or an attack hiding in an app that claims to be something else entirely? In that case, you've installed the security threat on your phone without even knowing it.

While it's possible that that could happen on either platform, it's much less likely to happen on iPhone. That's because Apple reviews all apps submitted to the App Store before they're published. While that review isn't conducted by programming experts and doesn't involve exhaustive review of an app's code, it does provide some measure of security and very, very few malicious apps have ever made it into the App Store (and some that did were from security researchers testing the system).

Google's process of publishing apps involves much less review. You can submit an app to Google Play and have it available to users in a couple of hours (Apple's process can take a few days to as much as two weeks). As a result, in 2013, the Google Play app store had 42,000 apps in it capable of stealing users' information, according to one count.

Finding Lost Phones: Lock It Down

Digital security isn't the only kind of security that matters when it comes to small, portable devices like smartphones. You also need to worry about physical security—what happens to your device if it's lost or stolen.

For many years, iPhones were among the most stolen devices in the U.S. (a surprisingly high percentage of New York City's overall thefts were simply iPhones; in 2013 almost 10,000 iPhones were stolen in that city alone). Apple has dramatically reduced those figures with a combination of two features: Find My iPhone and Activation Lock. Find My iPhone is Apple's GPS-enabled technology for pinpointing the location of a stolen iPhone. It's been around since 2010. Activation Lock was added in 2013 and prevents thieves from doing anything with stolen phones unless they have the Apple ID that was used to activate the phone originally. 

Google's answer to Find My iPhone, called Android Device Manager, debuted in summer 2013. It offers many of the same features—finding the phone on a map, deleting data remotely—but doesn't have anything as theft-deterring as Activation Lock.

A Final Note On Jailbreaking

Everything that's come before this point about the iPhone being more secure than Android is correct, but there's one thing that can change that dramatically: jailbreaking. Jailbreaking is the process of removing a lot of the restrictions that Apple places on iPhones to allow the user to install virtually whatever apps they want. This gives the users a tremendous amount of flexibility with their phone, but it also opens them up to a lot more trouble.

In the history of the iPhone, there have been very, very few hacks and viruses, but those that have existed almost all attacked jailbroken phones only. So, if you're thinking about jailbreaking your phone, keep in mind that it will make your device much less secure.