Google updates security to detect more malicious apps and tackle scam scourge

SINGAPORE – Google is rolling out a new security update from Thursday to alert Android phone users to malicious apps, to help prevent them from falling prey to malware scams.

When a user tries to install an app that has never been scanned before, the new feature in the Google Play Protect security program will scan the code of the app in real time to detect previously undetected threats.

Users will receive a message informing them whether an app is safe to install or is potentially harmful, Google announced in a blog post on Thursday.

Launched in 2017, Google Play Protect scans 125 billion apps daily to protect Android users from malware and fraud. Before the upgrade, it scanned for and detected only known threats.

The update will also better protect users against malicious polymorphic apps that use artificial intelligence to dynamically change their features to avoid detection by security systems.

Android phone users in Singapore can look forward to benefiting from this feature in the coming months.

The update will roll out first to Android phone users in India, a hotbed of scam activity.

Cyber attacks in the first quarter of the year increased by 18 per cent weekly in the South Asian country, compared with the global rate of 7 per cent.

Real-time scanning will kick in for all devices running on operating system (OS) Android 6 or later once it is rolled out in a user’s country. Users do not need to update their Android OS to enjoy the new feature. 

In Singapore, more than 1,400 victims fell prey to malware scams between January and August, with total losses amounting to at least $20.6 million, the police said.

Many victims had responded to fake supermarket advertisements or durian tours, and were tricked into “sideloading” harmful Android package kits, or APKs.

These apps were downloaded via third-party website links posted online or sent via messaging apps instead of the official Google Play Store.

These apps contained malware that allowed scammers to remotely capture keystrokes and access the compromised devices.

After stealing passwords and banking credentials, scammers would perform unauthorised transactions on victims’ banking apps, either wiping out their savings or taking out loans in their names.

Android phone users will not be barred from sideloading, Google director of Android security strategy Eugene Liderman told reporters on Wednesday, at a media briefing about Android security.

Despite its inherent risk, sideloading is sometimes used to download legitimate apps, such as Singapore Pools’ mobile lottery app, which is not on the Google Play Store because Singapore is not on the firm’s list of countries that can facilitate online gambling.

Ad blocker apps are also not on the Google Play Store because they violate Google’s developer distribution agreement.

Mr Liderman said Google is still trying to find the right balance between giving users choice and protecting them.

In particular, the tech giant is counting on the upgraded real-time scanning feature in Google Play Protect to make a big difference, he added.