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5 free Android security apps: Keep your smartphone safe

Eric Geier | Feb. 22, 2012
There's been much controversy over mobile OS security, especially where Android is concerned.

The Avast Free Mobile Security app includes anti-malware and anti-theft features, along with browsing protection that prompts you if you visit a malicious website. A privacy advisor helps you identify any installed apps that use permissions which could be potentially dangerous, while an application manager lets you manage running apps.

SMS and call filtering is also included, which lets you block incoming messages and calls and outgoing calls based on times and contacts you select. The app lacks any backup functionality, but a firewall and enhanced anti-theft features are provided for rooted devices.

In addition to automatically scanning apps you install, Avast can do full scans of all your installed apps on the phone and on the SD card. You can do this manually or specify days and times to have it done automatically.

By default, Avast will appear on the notification bar and menu, showing its status and offering a shortcut to open it. The main app screen is straightforward, listing shortcuts for each feature and the settings. Though there are many more settings and preferences compared to other security apps, the developers did a fairly good job keeping the interface user-friendly.

The first time you open Avast, it prompts you to set up the anti-theft feature. A neat touch: You can define a custom name for the separate anti-theft app -- ideally something inconspicuous that won't alert thieves to its presence. Additionally, the app is password-protected, and the shortcut can be hidden from the app tray. For rooted devices, it can even store the anti-theft app and settings in a way that survives hard resets of your device.

Avast's anti-theft functionality provides remote locating, a remote alarm with the ability to use custom audio, remote locking with a custom message (for example, "Return this smartphone to...") and remote wiping. You can set it to automatically lock and have the siren go off if the SIM card is changed or when you mark it as lost by sending it an SMS message.

Avast can even disable access to the Android program manager and phone settings, prevent USB debugging, and force the data connection on in order to remotely back up your data.

Currently, if you want to use the remote anti-theft and remote control features, you must send SMS commands to your device. Avast provides feedback via SMS replies as well -- for example, it will provide a link to a Google map after locating the device.

Avast has other useful features. You can have your phone call a given number remotely, forward SMS messages and call logs, retrieve contacts, and even pass raw data to any other app. However, in order to access these remote features you must send SMS messages from another phone; it would be much more user-friendly if there were a Web-based interface. Avast says one will be added in the first quarter of 2012.


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