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Mumbai-based Vernika Awal uses an antivirus application for her Android smartphone. However, she has never noticed the app detecting any malware on her device. Awal wondered whether it is because there are no viruses on her phone, or whether the app she downloaded doesn’t work.

The fact is that Android and iOS smartphones theoretically do not need antivirus software. At least not in the traditional sense, as they were used for Windows-based desktop computers. That’s because these are Unix-based systems and cannot be infected automatically the way Windows systems can.

They have a “sandbox" design, which separates the app layer from the rest of the system, making them more difficult to attack.

According to ethical hacker, Ashish Singh, a user has to not only download a malicious app on a phone, but also has to run it themselves, which “makes it more difficult to “infect a smartphone". “Antivirus is not a complete solution, but it’s not bad either," he added. Singh also pointed out that Apple’s iOS is designed such that apps can’t access most of the core system, making it more difficult to attack. Apple also has more stringent checks for apps on its platforms, he said.

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That said, Singh agreed that downloading apps from third-party app stores can cause troubles, and that even Google’s Play Store has apps that can harm users. “Not downloading apps from third-party stores, websites, etc., is the best thing that users can do."

To be sure, while antivirus apps may not always detect a virus for you, they have other uses. “Antivirus apps cannot completely protect you from a malware attack, but can definitely warn you at the initial stage. They also scan every app that you install and notify you if there is any malicious activity, if there is any app hidden in your phone that may be stealing your data secretly. An antivirus also notifies/blocks malicious websites, while surfing on the web," sid Shrenik Bhayani, general manager, Kaspersky Lab (South Asia).

For instance, Kaspersky Internet Security for Android comes with features such as anti-theft, call blocking, message filter and safe browsing. These features can help you in various ways over and above virus detection.

Kaspersky also makes the Kaspersky Safe Kids app, which brings parental control to your phone. You can block content, limit app usage, put limits on screen-on time and more, with the free version of this app.

The paid version adds features such as locating your children’s phones remotely.

Similarly, the Android version for Avast Antivirus gives you a virtual private network (VPN) to hide your online activities, a “photo vault" to restrict access to photos on your phone, an app locker and more. It even has a Wi-Fi speed testing tool built in.

However, downloading antivirus apps can also be risky. “These apps ask for many permissions, all of which seem relevant, so they are among the easiest ways for attackers to gain access to your phone," Singh said. Since virus scanning requires deeper access to your phone’s system, it is easy for antivirus apps to ask for permissions without question.

In 2017, Apple removed a bunch of “virus scanning" apps from the App Store. The company even added provisions in its developer guidelines to prevent such apps on the App Store.

“Phishing attacks are constantly in the headline every day. Apps and software can be useful, but it won’t prevent the potential attack," says Kaspersky’s Bhayani. “To avoid attacks be aware about cyber security, keep your system updated, keep your password very strong, refer to consumer reports for trustable software, disable Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS when you’re not using them," he added.

According to guidelines from cybersecurity firm Sophos, users should keep their phones updated, use encryption and install apps from trusted sources only, among other things, to keep their smartphones safe.

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