McAfee: Android Biggest Malware Target Today, Yet Symbian Still Tops It

With 550,000 activations per day, and 200 million activations to-date, Android is fast shaping up to be the world’s biggest OS, but that growth is also attracting a lot of unsavory elements, it seems. McAfee, the IT security specialists owned by Intel (NSDQ: INTC), says that nearly all of the new malware detected in Q3 this year was targeted at Android. But just as in the wider mobile market, Android is still playing second fiddle to Symbian, which holds the dubious distinction of having, by far, the most platform-specific malware of all.

McAfee’s Q3 report, out today, noted that Android malware was the fastest-growing in the quarter, increasing by some 37 percent — a trend that other security specialists have been spotting, too. Given that Symbian is a platform that is quickly receding in prominence — almost mirroring the rise of Android, in fact — it may not be long before Android overtakes Symbian as the focus of the most malware attacks.

While malware in general continues to be on the rise — McAfee says it predicts there will be 75 million unique samples of malware in 2011, a revision of its earlier prediction of 70 million — what should be worrying to mobile users is that there are a number of methods that are specifically geared to mobile devices.

McAfee notes that two of the most popular routes for malicious hackers are to use SMS messages carrying “Trojans,” or programs that collect person information and/or steal money from users’ accounts; and malware that can actually record phone conversations and then send them to attackers.

We’ve also written about cases in which dodgy apps — sometimes designed to be knock-offs of other, more popular apps — actually contain malware that collects information about users.

What’s additionally worrying is that mobile malware is still a relatively emerging field, so unlike PC owners that tend to have antivirus software installed on their Windows devices, that kind of automatic behaviour, or reluctance to open unfamiliar SMS messages, may not be as common.

So why the focus on Android? Some might think that the reason for the rise has to do with Android being an “open” system, as opposed to something like iOS being “closed.” But McAfee says it’s the sheer popularity of the platform that makes it a target (much like the Windows OS in the PC world). Indeed, Symbian, which still has, in aggregate, more malware than Android, did have a period of being open-source (one of the several turns of strategy that Nokia (NYSE: NOK) and others tried to keep the platform afloat with developers), but for the most part it has been closed, too.

And although iOS seems off McAfee’s radar — Apple’s mobile operating system for iPhone, iPad and iPods is presumably is in the “others” category in the pie chart above — Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) is not completely immune.

McAfee noted that malware on increasingly-popular Macs has grown in Q3, although not by nearly as much as it did in Q2, as you can see by the table below. But if you take popularity as the key reason for the attacks, then today’s report from Canalys, which predicts that Apple will become the leading global PC vendor (overtaking HP) by the end of 2012, may give iConsumers some cause for concern, too.