Recent reports from antivirus companies seem to suggest that the number of Android malware threats is growing. However, there are still many skeptics who say the extent of the problem is exaggerated.
The security industry has an embarrassing credibility issue when it comes to mobile threats, Rik Ferguson, global vice president of security research at antivirus vendor Trend Micro, said Friday in a blog post.
Big industry vendors warned for many years that "next year" mobile malware will truly take off, but the threat never materialized, he said. "Now that the problem is well and truly here -- the last two years have both been called 'the year of mobile malware' at several points -- we have a problem persuading the world at large that we are not crying 'Wolf!' yet again."
One of the arguments commonly brought forward by skeptics is that Android malware mostly exists in third-party app stores that are popular in countries like China or Russia. That's not true, Ferguson said.
Trend Micro's mobile app reputation service has analyzed more than 2 million mobile app samples collected from around the world and 293,091 of them have been classified as outright malicious, Ferguson said.
Almost 69,000 of those were sourced directly from Google Play, which offers around 700,000 apps in total, he said. "It's not just Chinese and Russian app stores."
A further 150,203 apps of the 2 million analyzed by Trend Micro were flagged as high risk and 22% of the 2 million were found to leak device and SIM card identification numbers, as well as users' contact data and telephone numbers.
In addition to apps that pose security and privacy risks, there are many apps that are undesirable for other reasons. For example, 32% of the analyzed apps had poor battery usage, 24% had poor network usage and 28% had poor memory usage.
The statistics shared by Ferguson come one day after security firm F-Secure released a report saying that Android malware accounted for 96% of new mobile threats discovered during the fourth quarter of 2012 and 79% of all mobile threats discovered during 2012.
Bogdan Botezatu, a senior e-threat analyst at antivirus vendor Bitdefender, believes that the Android malware threats are not only increasing in number, but are also becoming more diversified. "Mobile malware has developed in a way that is extremely similar to the malware for Windows operating systems," he said Friday via email. "In the past years, we saw notable developments in the Android e-threat landscape: adware becoming more aggressive, increased number of premium-rate SMS senders and the emergence of SMS interceptor Trojans aimed at mobile banking fraud."
Skeptics are correct that most Android malware is found on third-party application stores or on shady websites that offer cracked, unrestricted versions of popular paid applications, Botezatu said. It's also true that such third-party apps sources are more popular in countries like Russia or China. "But let's not forget that China has the fastest-growing Android market in the world at the moment, so we are talking about a huge number of Android users who may fall victim to malware delivered via third-party stores," he said.
When talking about Android threats there's some confusion generated by the lack of a clear-cut distinction between adware, aggressive adware, spyware and malware, Botezatu said. The fastest growing number of Android threats are aggressive-ad-supported apps, but there has also been a significant spike in the development of Android Trojan programs and monitors, a category of applications that track users' behavior and geographical position, he said.
"Bottom line: Android malware is here to stay," Botezatu said. "Since more and more users turn to Android for day-to-day operations, cybercriminals have plethora of reasons to invest in the research and development of mobile-borne threats. Android malware is already in a point where it can inflict real damage to users: banker Trojans, mobile espionage and privacy invasion are only a few of the threats that we deal with on a daily basis. And with mobile devices becoming payment mechanisms -- payment via premium-rate SMS or by tapping into the associated Google Wallet account-- the next generations of Android threats will become even more dangerous."