- A "zombie app" is pre-installed by the manufacturer and near-impossible to delete.
- Not only do these zombie apps take up space and precious battery life, but they also leave the door open to hackers.
- Some zombie apps are worse than others. Here's how to delete them, or at least minimize their damage.
With Halloween approaching, it's time to purge your phone of the pre-installed "zombie apps" that suck its blood (a.k.a. battery life) and leave your data at the mercy of hackers. Here's how to spot a zombie app in the, uh, flesh.
What Is a Zombie App?
They're not zombie games, but rather, the kinds of apps that come pre-installed on new smartphones. Usually, they're all pieces of software created by the phone manufacturers themselves. In other cases, they're apps you delete, but hang around enough to still run sneaky software in the background.
Android phones in particular have a whole squad of useless apps. On a Samsung Galaxy Note 8, for example, we were able to delete some of the unwanted manufacturer apps (including one from this particular phone's service provider, Sprint), but there were at least 11 pesky ones that were impossible to remove.
That includes Galaxy Store, Samsung Internet, My Files (okay, this one is necessary and permissible), Samsung Notes, Galaxy Themes, Write on PDF, Bixby Vision, Lookout, Sprint Spot, and Caller ID and Voicemail—again, necessary evils in an era of robocalls galore.
But here's the truth: Practically any app that you don't use anymore could be a zombie, like that old parking app for a city you visited once, or Candy Crush, which you haven't played in years. Even after you press the app until it starts shaking and it disappears from your home screen, its metadata still exists in the giant digital graveyard lurking on your phone.
Why Are Zombie Apps Evil?
Zombie apps aren't going anywhere, according to 2015 research from Forensiq, a company that detects advertising fraud. In the advertising industry especially, these apps can create serious financial plunders.
Forensiq flagged over 5,000 mobile apps that were committing ad fraud on both Android and iOS devices. Some of those impacted apps included Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Mercedes.
Here's how it works: a harmless looking app, like a flashlight, runs constantly once you install it, even in the background when you're not using it. The Forensiq report notes that in one day, a single app can consume up to two gigabytes of data and run more than 16,000 ads in the background, all without your knowledge or consent.
To make matters worse, these infected apps can't be detected by antivirus software like the kind computers use, Forensiq CEO David Sendroff told Ad Age.
"These apps are requesting permission to run on startup," Sendroff said. "Even if you reboot your phone that app would load in the background."
You never actually see the adds that come from zombie apps, but Sendroff said the apps can run up to 700 ads per hour. For context, just one app displays an ad about once every minute or two. As you'd expect, that's a serious bummer for your phone's battery, which drains faster due to the background activity.
But the biggest threat that zombie apps pose is pretty on brand for 2019: data breaches.
If your unloved apps are just sitting there in the background, the best case scenario is that they simply take up space. The worst case? Your dormant data stored in the apps can be exposed to hackers, from your email address all the way to your credit card information.
Mike Zaneis, executive vice president and general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, told Ad Age that the Forensiq report is "groundbreaking."
"This is the next frontier for criminals. As the money and ad dollars flow toward the mobile space, criminals are going to go there. They are following the money," he said.
Zaneis said that Americans spend over $2 billion annually to fight malware.
"The app world is more confined," he said. "It will take more money to develop effective solutions to combat this," he said.
How to Fight Zombie Apps
If you're concerned that all your apps are going to destroy your phone, don't worry. Here's how to get rid of those damn things once and for all.
1) Purge your phone of unused apps.
Get out a piece of paper and write down a list of the apps you regularly use and find essential to your daily life. Wipe whatever doesn't make the list. You'll free up your battery and mitigate any possible cyber threats from apps you aren't using anyway.
2) Search your email for zombie accounts.
You've probably forked over your email address a few hundred times when downloading new apps. So search your inbox for phrases like "confirm your email," "new account," or "verify your email address," all of which should turn up accounts you may want to close, or apps you may want to delete.
3) Quit using Facebook to log into third party apps.
Facebook is a well-established demon when it comes to data breaches. The social media app constantly runs in the background and also collects info from the other third-party zombie apps you've authorized. So do a thorough check of all the apps and services you've connected to through Facebook, as well as Twitter and Google. To check on those permissions, visit here for Facebook, here for Twitter and here for Google.
4) De-clutter what you can't delete.
Of course, we mentioned that some pre-installed zombie apps simply can't be deleted. But that doesn't mean you have to deal with them again.
For example, we tried to clear the mess on that Samsung Galaxy Note 8, and this trick will work on virtually any Android phone. Simply create a new folder on your app screen and house all of those irritating, useless apps there. That way you won't have to look at them unless you want to. Does that kill the zombies? No. But at least it'll give you some peace of mind.
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