AT&T is giving its Android phones a dose of malware protection by pre-loading Lookout security software on all handsets.
The deal between AT&T and Lookout doesn’t just cover all new Android smartphones. According to Lookout, AT&T will gradually install the Lookout app on older devices through software updates. Once installed, Lookout won’t be enabled by default, though it will remind users to set up an account.
I have no qualms with Lookout’s security software–it’s a fine option if you want some extra threat protection or remote location features beyond what Android already offers–but the deal with AT&T makes me cringe for several reasons.
First, it’s another piece of non-removable software. Users can disable Lookout by going to the Apps section of their Settings menu, but they won’t be able to uninstall it completely. Although it’s not a very large app–it takes about 8 MB from what I’ve seen–it’s on your system for good.
Even more unsettling is the idea that AT&T wants to remotely install apps onto older phones. The bloatware situation on Android devices is already bad enough when you take the phone out of the box. It certainly doesn’t need to get worse over time. This is a slippery slope that could lead to all sorts of unwanted apps getting beamed to users’ phones in the future.
Most worrisome of all, this deal risks driving people away from Android by perpetuating the idea that it needs malware protection in the first place. Despite the occasional alarmist story–usually propagated by companies pushing security software–the fact is that Android users aren’t in much greater danger than iPhone users if they stick to apps from the Google Play Store. Even Lookout has admitted this much, and Google has claimed that just 0.001% of installed apps are able to get past its built-in defenses. If users start seeing preloaded security software on their phones, they may just switch to the iPhone out of fear.
Alex Abey, Lookout’s vice president of business development, has a few rebuttals. In an interview, he said that Lookout tries not to be overly intrusive, and avoids positioning itself as scareware. “We don’t present red skull-and-crossbones kind of warnings. We’re there as a backstop,” Abey said. He hopes that over time, the conversation around mobile security will become less hysterical.
Abey also emphasized Lookout’s phone-finding services as something Android users might want even if they’re not worried about security. Android now has its own remote location and remote wipe features built-in, but Lookout has some extra features, such as the ability to back up data and to take a photo with the phone’s front camera after consecutive failed login attempts.
Incidentally, some of those features are tied to a $3 per month premium service, which is how Lookout aims to make money on the AT&T deal. AT&T shares some of that revenue, and hopes the feeling of added security will carry over to future business opportunities such as mobile banking and NFC-based payments.
On one level the intentions are good. Some users may benefit from Lookout, and overall the app isn’t as intrusive as classic PC anti-virus software. Still, forcing the program onto everyone’s phone seems like overkill to me, and could introduce new worries for users who hadn’t even considered mobile malware before.