Which is safest: Android, iOS or Windows Phone?

When it comes to buying a smartphone, not paying attention to security can bite you down the road. So today, we’re comparing the security of the three most popular mobile operating systems to see which offers the best protection.

How important is security in a mobile operating system?

Very. Try to imagine any of these situations, the stress they can cause and the money you could lose:

– Your phone gets stolen or you lose it in the back of a cab.

– Someone steals your photos.

– A virus sneaks into your phone and steals your payment information.

– Your phone gets damaged and you haven’t backed it up.

When a mobile operating system is secure and its security features are easy to use, it’s less likely you will end up in one the situations. Choosing a more secure mobile operating system could save yourself a lot of hassle in the future.

What mobile operating systems are we comparing

Over 95% of  mobile phones that are able to connect to internet use Android, iOS, or Windows Phone. We have analyzed the following versions found on typical devices:

Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) on Nexus 4
iOS 8 on iPhone 5s
Windows Phone 8.1 (Update 1) on Lumia 630

Although Windows Phone is still has a long way to go before it catches up to Android, its market share is approaching 3.6% in the United States; which is why we decided to include it in our comparison.

Which operating system has the fewest amount of viruses and harmful apps?

Alcatel-Lucent reported that 60% of mobile malware infections happened on Android. As the most widely used OS in the world, it’s also a prime target for hackers. Viruses don’t attack Android from Google Play, which is safe, but through pirate app stores or direct app downloads.

Malware like Android Defender, a false app that hijacks your smartphone, haven’t been seen on either iOS or Windows Phone for one very simple reason: Android is the only system that lets you install apps outside of its official app store. By default, you can’t install apps from unknown sources, but people who want free apps are willing to bypass security to save money.

Below is an example permissions required by an official game and the malware infested copy.

The green border shows the official game; the red shows the game with a virus that asks for more permissions (Source: F-Secure)

Apple has tight control over its App Store and makes it difficult for viruses and misleading apps to sneak onto your iOS device unless you’ve jailbroken your phone, something most users don’t do. Windows Phone is in a similar situation, although its store is full of fake apps that Microsoft is only now cleaning up.

iOS wins for its quality control and app security

Which is easier to recover if my phone gets lost or stolen?

All three systems have anti-theft apps: Find my iPhone, Android Device Manager, and My Windows Phone. These apps allow you to locate your device remotely and send basic commands, such as erasing your data or setting off an alarm. However, Windows Phone is the only system that can send these commands via SMS, Wi-Fi and cellular data.

The anti-theft apps for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone

iOS features an activation lock, which requires you to enter your Apple account information if a phone is reported as lost. This feature has effectively helped decrease iPhone thefts. However, Microsoft is working on adding an activation lock to Windows Phone.

Android allows you to lock the phone with a message and a phone number

Android has a password lock similar to Apple, with the option to add a phone number to your lock screen just in case someone finds the device. You can also lock or wipe your friends’ devices (also possible on iOS). Samsung phones have additional options, but only on certain models.

What happens if someone steals your phone and wants to access your data? In this case, only iOS 8 incorporates full data encryption by default. Android features an optional setting and on Windows Phone, data encryption doesn’t apply to the memory card. This means that iOS is the only system that offers complete data protection in case of loss or theft.

iOS 8 takes the lead with its automatic data encryption.

Which is the easiest to unlock and which has the best device lock?

According to a 2013 report from Trend-Micro, between 30% and 60% of users don’t lock their cell phone. Having to unlock your phone is often seen as a nuisance. Therefore, the ideal locking system should meet two main requirements: it must be unbreakable and easy to use.

Android has the largest variety of locking options: slide, PIN, password, pattern, and facial recognition. The pattern is perhaps the easiest to use and is also extremely secure. iOS, on the other hand, has PIN and password protection as well as Touch ID on newer iPhones. Windows Phone only offers swipe and password.

Apple’s Touch ID in action (photo courtesy of iPhoneWorld)

In my opinion, Touch ID is most convenient system. It’s difficult to break into and unlocking takes a second. The runner up is Android’s pattern lock, which although robust, is less reliable than the fingerprint, especially if you set an easy pattern.

iOS wins for its Touch ID.

Which best protects my children?

Parental control has long been a long-standing issue for mobile operating systems. What worries parents most today are the things their children are able to do with their smartphone or tablet, such as buying expensive apps without permission or accessing important data and photos.

Android has parental controls with its user profiles, but those are only available on tablets. Android’s app store, Google Play , allows you to set a password to make purchases. Windows Phone has more options, such as My Family which allows you to define what kind of apps your children can download and how much they cost. It mainly focuses on controlling the installation of apps, and is configured from the browser.

My Family (Windows Phone) allows you to control the purchasing and installation of apps

iOS 8 is the one with the most options. In the Restrictions menu you can disable system apps (like the browser) and limit the settings that can be changed. With Family Sharing you’re able to control purchases (children must request permission to buy apps). The most useful feature however is Find My Friends, which allows you to locate your friends and family on a map.

With Find My Friends (iOS) you can locate family and friends on the map

If I had to choose an OS for the quality of parental controls, the mere simple fact that i can locate my family makes iOS my clear choice. In iOS 8, Apple’s operating system is designed to help families who want to keep their kids safe.

iOS 8 is the winner with its parental controls and Find My Friends.

Which one best protects my data if it gets erased?

After resetting or switching phones, what features can you restore? Has the system backed up your data and apps? Backing up data to the cloud is one aspect to keep in mind when opting for one system or another.

Windows Phone can back up your apps, photos, and text messages to the cloud. You have 18 gigabytes of free space available to use with Microsoft OneDrive. Windows Phone saves you the hassle of remembering to make regular backups. Your backups can be also managed (deleted) from the phone.

The cloud backup system for Windows Phone uses OneDrive

Android uses a different approach. It automatically stores your settings and passwords in the cloud, but photos, videos and documents are stored in separate, optional spaces such as Google Drive or Google+ for a combined 15GB of storage.

iOS stores all kinds of data in iCloud, but only gives you five gigabytes for free. This is virtually nothing compared to the 18 gigabytes that Microsoft provides through OneDrive (15GB free and 3GB for uploading your photos).

Windows Phone wins for its extra space and easy configuration.

Conclusion: iOS is the safest out of the box

Second place goes to Windows Phone: very robust and with excellent backup options, but still needs some work.

Android falls to third place, as it forces you to make more decisions and has a less consistent security landscape, with manufacturers adding their own security customizations.

As we discussed in the previous comparison, security that isn’t intuitive is not very useful. iOS 8 takes first place because Apple knows how to combine safety with ease of use. It requires little configuration, and features such as Touch ID and Find My Friends make it unbeatable.

In short: if you don’t want to think too much about security, choose iOS or Windows Phone. Android can be dangerous, but only if you’re leaving Google Play and customizing your security settings to leave the phone open. I guess that’s just the price you pay for more freedom.

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Originally published in Spanish for Softonic ES.

Follow me on: @remoquete

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