If you’re using an Android device, you’ve probably downloaded an app from Google Play at some point. Also known as the Play Store, Google Play is the go-to source for Android apps. In theory, all apps in an app store like Google Play should be safe because they’re vetted by Google prior to being published—that’s the advantage of the more controlled “walled garden” environment found on mobile devices.
Every garden has weeds, however, and Google Play is no exception. There have been reports that Google has removed apps from the Play Store due to the presence of spyware. Even relatively “safe” apps can request excessive permissions, potentially enabling data collection and tracking you aren’t even aware of.
The following are some tips for staying safe when downloading apps from Google Play:
On Android, apps exist in what’s called a sandbox. Basically, by default, an app can’t access any other apps or make changes to the system as a whole. Although this keeps you safe from malware, it can also limit what apps are capable of doing. Permissions are granted to apps to allow them to perform special tasks—like access your camera or microphone—in a transparent and controlled way.
You can preview the permissions an app needs to run in Google Play before you install it by scrolling to the bottom of its page in the Play Store and tapping Permission details. This gives you an overview of the special permissions an app will receive when you download it. In newer versions of Android, apps have to explicitly ask you for certain permissions after they’re installed, like the ability to access your device’s storage.
Determine the number of downloads
Google Play prominently displays the amount of times an app has been downloaded at the top of the screen under the Install button. Keep an eye on this when you’re thinking about downloading a new app.
Although there’s nothing wrong with installing an app that’s only been downloaded a few thousand times, the more users an app has, the more visible the app will be and there will be less opportunity for malware to fly under the radar. It can also help you recognize and avoid “clone” apps that may distract you from the real app you’re trying to download.
Remember to research
Beyond permissions and number of installs, there are other ways to make sure an app is safe. In many cases, you can learn more about who made an app and what the app does by going to the app developer’s website (found at the bottom of the app’s Play Store listing under Additional Information). It’s also a good idea to check out reviews for the app, both on Google Play itself and online by simply searching for the app on a search engine.