Android users don’t swim in cesspools

Over at InfoWorld, Galen Gruman posted a column with the ludicrous title “Android is a malware cesspool—and users don’t care.” The entire premise (or premises) of the column are so flawed that I almost didn’t bother writing a response. But because they reflect ideas I’ve heard/seen mentioned elsewhere, I felt it was worth commenting.

First, Android is not a “malware cesspool.” Yes, it’s a popular open platform, and the combination of openness and relatively little effort by Google to “tend the garden” has led to some malware popping up. But we’re talking about a few dozen malware apps out of a few hundred thousand available. And, while some have lingered longer than they should in the Android Market, they do eventually get removed and, in some cases, even uninstalled from users’ phones. Though accurate numbers are difficult to find and compare, every indication I’ve seen says that malware is far less prevalent on Android phones than on Windows PCs at this point. And, even with years of history of malware issues, most people don’t consider Windows a cesspool.

The idea that “users don’t care” is also off base. Of course they do. No one wants to have his money stolen or his phone ruined. The evidence that Gruman provides to bolster his case is that users don’t carefully scrutinize applications’ permissions before installing, and that users haven’t flocked to download a specific app that seeks to warn users of dangerous apps. Even if we fully (and foolishly) assumed that users were aware of all the potential risks and how best to protect themselves, neither of these arguments holds up.

The permissions feature used in Android provides broad, confusing information about what an application is requesting permission to do once installed. There’s no easy way to get further information or to discuss with other users or the vendor any questions that arise when faced with the choice of whether to accept the permissions. And users have to make a cost-benefit trade-off: do I scrutinize these permissions, which takes time and thought on the chance that they might make me think twice about installing this app that I want to install? Even if a user cares about the risk, it may be rational to skip or skim the permissions and then click “install.”

As for security apps, Gruman first argues that mobile security apps are mostly a waste, and then bemoans the fact that users haven’t expressed interest in a particular security app. Again, even if we assume that the users are aware that the security app might help them, they may be unfamiliar with the product, the vendor, and how well this particular product would help protect them.

Of course, the assumption that users know the full range of risks and threat vectors doesn’t hold up, either. Part of the implication embedded in “users don’t care” is that they know about these risks and just aren’t interested in avoiding them. The reality, though, is much different. Many users have no idea what might happen, how likely it is to happen, what they can do to reduce the risks, how to prioritize those defenses, etc. Heck, I’m not sure I know the answers to all those questions, and I do this stuff for a living!

I should give Gruman credit for one great point towards the end of his column. He emphasizes that user education shouldn’t just come in the form of lectures, but in the form of in-your-face intervention. He gives the example of an IT department trying to phish its users, and then letting the victims know when they’ve fallen for it. This “just in time,” real-world learning can be very effective, and can help users comprehend the risks, which leads to better decisions. Which, of course, is only true because they care.


One thought on “Android users don’t swim in cesspools

  1. Android is only behind Windows in the amount of malware. They just recently surpassed Symbian, a giant task considering Symbian has been out years longer. Fragmentation only compounds the problems.

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