When desktop computers represented our only link to the wider world, it was inevitable they would be targeted by miscreants and troublemakers.
Annoying worms and corrupting viruses soon mutated into more destructive forms of malware, including ransomware.
Today, we still use the term ‘antivirus software’ to describe preventative tools and utilities, even though malware is now a catch-all term for any unwanted or harmful online content.
And with so much malware in circulation, it’s perhaps surprising how blasé people are about it.
After all, most of the world’s web traffic and email is now viewed on mobile devices.
So should we all be taking smartphone malware more seriously?
Taste the difference
There are a number of distinctions between desktop and mobile devices, which might infer dedicated antivirus software isn’t needed to tackle smartphone malware.
Desktop computers allow software installations from unregulated third-party vendors, whereas the Android and (in particular) iOS operating systems are secure walled gardens.
Honourably excepting the dubious practice of jailbreaking a smartphone, the only software you can install on smartphones has been evaluated and approved by Google and Apple.
They go to great lengths to weed out potentially unwanted applications (PUAs), ensuring consumers are safe to download and install anything listed in official app stores.
There are other grounds for reassurance, if not complacency.
Historically, viruses and malware targeted Windows as the dominant desktop OS. This is still true, despite Windows losing market share to new platforms like Google Chrome OS.
The structure of smartphone operating systems also means viruses find it very difficult to propagate and spread, as they might on a PC.
And both Google and Apple have in-built scanning tools constantly checking for malware variants, akin to antivirus software.
The threat is real
Nonetheless, spammers and scammers have noticed our migration away from desktop web browsing to surfing on our smartphones.
Rather than viruses, they’ve focused their efforts on financially rewarding activities like ransomware and spyware – logging keystrokes and harvesting user data.
Email attachments represent a risk on any platform, since an infected PDF file could unleash its malevolent payload on an iPhone as well as a MacBook.
A text message may contain links to phishing websites just like an email or social media post.
Malvertising is another platform agnostic source of infection. It’s defined as malware contained in otherwise legitimate web advertising networks.
And despite Apple’s claims that iOS can’t get infected, high-profile malware attacks like XcodeGhost have shown any operating system may be compromised and hijacked.
Playing it safe
While vigilance remains the public’s best weapon against smartphone malware, the easily distracted or overly cautious could install dedicated software.
Kaspersky, AVG and Avast all produce antivirus software for smartphones, often sold as part of a wider suite covering multiple internet-enabled devices.
These utilities may prevent sudden rashes of pop-up ads, unexplained data usage, or the mysterious appearance of apps which the device’s owner hasn’t chosen to download.