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If you read a lot of mobile news, you probably don't go a single week without seeing a major story about an Android or iOS app trying to rip people off, steal their private data, or impersonate a legitimate product. But while these stories are usually accurate, they might not be as common as you've been led to believe.

According to Google's new quarterly Android Ecosystem Security Transparency Report, less than 1 percent of Android devices using the Google Play Store are afflicted by harmful apps. In fact, if users *only* use the Play Store to get their apps and updates, then this number plummets further to less than a tenth of a percent.

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The implication is that "sideloading" (manually installing an app outside of the Play Store) is statistically more risky, which isn't surprising. Google routinely bans sketchy apps from its store, but they remain available via sideloading, and their makers don't stop advertising the product just because it's unavailable from the approved channels.

Which brings us to a possible complication for the math that Google's using to calculate your Android safety: The Chinese government has banned the company's Play Store for years, so Android users there regularly sideload or use alternate app stores.

How big of a problem might this be?

According to Kantar Worldpanel, about 80 percent of phones sold in China in the last quarter were running Android, and IDC reports about 84 million Android phones were sold there by the top five brands in the same time frame. In a country of 1.386 billion people, there are hundreds of millions of Android phones that probably never interact with the Google Play Store, and they don't surface in the company's recent report.

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Granted, an Android user in China can download the Play Store via a virtual private network, but VPNs themselves are under tight government scrutiny, so the store's install base there hovers around just three percent. Over 400 domestic competitors now fill the power vacuum, and apps like WeChat have their own stores with a bustling ecosystem where the West has limited analytical access.

And in China, the risks don't just come from app developers, as the government itself is suspected of compromising user security in the name of domestic surveillance.

How much China impacts Google's statistical modeling is hard to say; the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. One hopes that the transparency of its reporting will extend more fulsomely to China in the future, since nearly 1 in 5 people on Earth call it home.

Takeaways

  • Google has issued a quarterly report on Android app security where it says that less than 1 percent of Play Store users are afflicted with potentially harmful apps. If customers use only the Play Store, this plummets to a tenth of a percent.
  • In China, however, only 3 percent of Android users interact with the Play Store, and it's home to nearly 1.4 billion people who are using hundreds of millions of Android phones. Therefore, Google's estimation of harmful app usage may be meaningfully low.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.