Want Mobile Malware? Don't Look to iPhone

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says there's a big malware threat in the mobile device space, and it isn't Apple's iOS. It's Google's Android, and it's so much of a problem that Homeland Security is warning law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical personell to avoid the platform.

iOS isn't perfect, but the vast majority of malware threats are targeting AndroidiOS isn't perfect, but the vast majority of malware threats are targeting Android

According to a study (PDF) conducted by Homeland Security, 79 percent of the mobile device malware attacks in 2012 were for the Android platform. In contrast, 0.7 percent were for iOS, and for once Microsoft can say it has even fewer malware threats with Windows Mobile accounting for 0.3 percent.

Part of that massive gap between Android and iOS comes from the fact that Google's mobile operating system holds an overall larger share of the market. Apple's iPhone is stunningly popular, and iPad is the main player in the tablet space, but so many companies make Android-based devices that the OS accounts for a larger part of the market.

Android's place as the mobile malware king isn't based on numbers alone. Apple's closed garden where every app that's available for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch must be vetted before it's released to the public -- and only through the company's own App Store -- has helped keep the malware threat down. Android apps, however, can be released without any screening and through a number of download services. Without a gatekeeper it's easier to slip potentially dangerous apps through and onto unsuspecting users.

Another issue Android users have to deal with is that most are at the mercy of their cell service provider for OS updates. When a security patch comes out there isn't any guarantee it'll get pushed out to users in a timely fashion, or even at all. With Apple controlling the distribution of iOS, as well as the update process, it's easier for the company to squash potential security flaws since it doesn't have to rely on other companies to push those updates out.

In some cases, Android users are stuck with outdated versions of the operating system because their service provider isn't providing an up to date version for their device, and never will. That doesn't stop people from hacking their device so they can get the latest Android updates directly from Google, but that accounts for a minority of Android users.

The big take away from the report isn't that there are more malware threats for Android; It's that Homeland Security sees it as a big enough issue to warn public safety agencies away from the OS. That, and it also makes for a handy shopping list of ways government agencies can inject their own malware into people's devices for covert monitoring.

The only way to be certain your personal information and other data won't be snatched up without your knowledge or consent is to not use a mobile device regardless of the operating system it runs, and to make sure anyone you know or communicate with doesn't use mobile devices, either. Since that's just not possible unless you live in a commune where no one uses mobile devices, and you don't interact with the outside world, at some point some of your data is going to get intercepted. That's just the world we live in now.

The numbers look great for Apple, but the company isn't completely in the clear. Homeland Security's report shows that at least a handful of iOS devices were hit with malware of some sort, and Apple hasn't always released security fixes for known flaws quickly. There's room for improvement on Apple's part, but less than one percent versus almost 80 percent for the tracked malware threats in a single year is still pretty good.

If the security threat numbers seem at least a little familiar, you've probably been using a Mac for several years and have heard tales of how safe OS X is compared to Windows. That was a big selling point for many people, and the huge gap between Android and iOS, we'll probably see the same types of arguments tossed around again -- just with mobile instead of desktop operating systems.

In the 1990s it was a battle between Mac OS and Windows. Now it's iOS and Android. Same as it ever was.