How to tell if an app is safe to install?

VeriSign SecuredDeciding if an app is safe takes a bit more than just common sense. You can't just judge an app on its looks anymore. Even Kaspersky, a world-renowned security application, had serious security issues. So the question is: how do you know if an app is ok to download?

Well, we ran to Google (like any inquisitive person would) and searched for some app trustworthiness guide, but we didn't really find anything! So, as developers ourselves, we figured we'd put together a list of tips and tricks which basically can act as a guide for all you would-be app downloaders. Each section has an overview of the point and is followed by helpful questions to ask yourself when you're worried about how reliable an app is.

9 Things to Help You Decide if an App is Safe

1 App stores are your friends

If you're a Mac user, you've got The App Store, and Android users have Google Play. These stores offer some pretty strict guidelines on what can be developed and what can't. There are very few things a developer can sneak by past these stores, and anything questionable would be addressed in number X and X of this list.

In short, due to the difference in review processes, apps from the App Store are generally safe; apps from Google Play can be a bit more worrisome.

But wait! Apps outside app stores can be safe, too!

It's not that being outside these stores make apps unsafe; it's just that it's hard for developers to make it in the App Store. And it's not just because of the guidelines; it's due to the cost! Being on the App Store means paying a yearly fee ($99) and then 30% of all the profits on your app.

As an example, let's say you're an indie dev. You make one app that you decide to sell for $0.99, and, amazingly, around 5,000 people download it. In the end, you come out with about $2,900. That's quite the hefty cut, and that's before you pay taxes on that income! This loss of profits can make selling on the App Store, an inviable option for developers. It's better for some developers to sell outside the App Store.

Back to the guidelines, for Mac utilities, the App Store guidelines are so incredibly tight. Any utility that interacts with system files is flat-out rejected due to sandboxing.

But, we're talking about finding trustworthy apps. And unfortunately, in that context, it's more of a gut-call than anything else. Some indie devs are completely trustworthy, but you'll have to check out the following list items to get a better idea as to how to judge them.

Questions to ask yourself about app stores

  1. What development guidelines does the App Store have?
    Bonus: What is commonly rejected from the App Store?
  2. What development guidelines does Google Play have?

2 Research new apps and the people who make them

New apps should be carefully picked apart. We don't mean learning code, opening package contents, and seeing exactly how it works (if you do, more power to you). However, you should try to get a good idea of everything the new app does. Take, for example, a new mobile game: When it comes to high scores, does it require my Facebook login information so it can post them? Do I want it to know my Facebook login info?

This example bleeds into numbers 3 and 4 in the list, but it gives you an idea of what you should know about the app and the questions you should be asking.

Also, be sure to check the app website and do some detective work on the creators, their previous apps, and their status in the tech community. Twitter and Facebook are wonderful for research regarding seeing what people think of the application and the team that supports it. For the App Store and Google Play, reviews are a decent reference point. However, please know that companies can skew these reviews! It's now commonly known that a company can have its workers give reviews of their own products on the App Store or Google Play. Now, one thing you can do as a buyer is a quick Google search of:

…and you might be able to dig up some dirt.

Another problem (we know, so many problems) is that “professional” reviews from publishers, bloggers, and journals, while generally a good sign, can also be completely farcical. The thing buyers should know is that some of these writers who review an application get a percentage of the sales that the publisher generates. So, do you think a bad review generates money for the app? Heck no! A favorable review brings in more money, so it's in the writer's best interest to give a favorable review, leading to the writer making more money off it.

Life's tough. We've already bought helmets. We suggest you get one, too.

In short, when looking at an app, ask yourself:

  1. What does this app do?
  2. What's the developer's or company's website?
  3. What other applications have they made?
  4. What do the reviews say?
  5. Does anything feel fishy?

3 Read the app's privacy policy

Your data and how it's used is a tricky subject. There's data for everything, from how much coffee you drink to the dance moves you use. And pretty much every time you download or use an app, your data is being collected. This includes email addresses, contacts, social media login info, and even the time you use the app.

Now, most companies don't get specific data about you but can use this data in many ways. You should read about what the application is tracking and what the company is doing with your data. This requires reading an application's Privacy Policy. Apps should detail what information they are accessing and how they will use that information. So, know that before you connect with any app, it's essential that you read (or, at the very least, browse over) the app's Privacy Policy.

Questions to ask of the Privacy Policy

  1. What data will the app collect? And why?
  2. How will it use that data?
  3. Are you OK with this?

Remember: There are probably similar apps that may not do/need this info. If you disagree with what the app/company is doing with data collection or usage, search for something else — Support developers who are doing the right thing, who you want to support.

4 Read the app's permissions

This is similar to number 4. Certain apps will ask to see your current location, phone calls, or even the ability to read, or write to, your SD card. For something like an application for tracking your runs, GPS tracking would be a logical thing to approve. But for a mobile game? It's not the most common of requests. If something looks off, don't download it.

If you download apps that have no business asking for certain permissions, you are supporting these practices — don't be afraid to say no, write the company and ask them for clarification.

Questions to ask about permissions

  1. What permissions does the app need?
  2. Should an app like this need that information?
  3. Am I comfortable with giving them information that they really don't need?

5 Email the developer/company, but only if necessary

Everything kind of comes to this point: if you're unsure of something when it comes to the above points, write the developer. The best thing you can do is open a dialogue and ask for direction. If you have a question about a booking with a hotel, you never hesitate to contact them: it should be the same with downloading/purchasing an app.

Plus, the best companies love hearing from their users. Write to the company and ask them about anything that's bothering you; it should be no trouble for them to get back to you and ease your worries. Besides, the way they respond should give you a better idea of who they are as a company.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. What information do you need about downloading or purchasing their app?
  2. How did they respond?
  3. Do I want to support a company or a developer like this?

6 If purchasing an app outside the App Store or Google Play...

Look for signs of security. 

And when entering in your credit card information, look for logos that include

  • BBB accreditation
  • Verisign Secured
  • Norton Secured

Or other forms of secure information entry.

Questions to ask about the web store

  1. Does the website look legitimate?
  2. Do they have a secure server? (//…)
  3. Do they have some form of security approved logo on their store?

7 Be sure to help others: review or report apps!

Let's say that everything checks out, and you do download the app: write a review or make a post on social media. The best thing you can do is to let others know that this app works as intended — or doesn't! By writing a review or social media post, you help out countless others that, like you, are playing it smart by searching for information on the application before downloading/buying it. Give back to the community by posting your thoughts.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Did this app work as intended?
  2. Was it worth the download/purchase?
  3. Can I help someone else out who was in my shoes?
  4. Where can I write this so that someone sees it?

Tip: On Twitter or Facebook, use a hashtag; for example, #appnamehere is a great app and works amazingly well! Replace the appname here with the app's name or even the company/developer who made the app.

8 Keep track of the apps you use — And remove the ones you don't anymore

Sometimes we get caught up in downloading tons of apps, much like a wiki-hole. You download one, and then another, and another… But, the thing is, updating these apps takes time and a lot of clicking the “Accept” button without actually reading the permissions/privacy-policy changes. You need to stay up-to-date on the apps you use, how they work, and the data they collect and use. Go through your phone, computer, or Mac, and be sure to get rid of the stuff you no longer use or recognize.

Questions to ask yourself before updating or removing an app

  1. How does this app work, and what does it collect/track?
  2. Do I use this app?
  3. Do I really need it anymore? 

9 But in all cases, go with your gut

We said it above, but we'll repeat it: Be sure to use common sense… you know, your gut. If the app looks a bit off, don't download it. If something seems suspicious, it's more than likely that it is. Don't ruin your phone, PC, or Mac for an app you think you can't live without. Remember, there are sure to be alternatives — Find them.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Does the app look/feel suspicious?
  2. Do I use this app?
  3. Do I really need it anymore?

Hopefully, this has given you a decent idea of how to figure out if an application is safe to use. Be sure to ask yourself the questions at the bottom of each point in order to make sure you're spending time, money, and trust in the right applications for you.

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