In today’s digital age, applications, or “apps”, play a vital role in our everyday lives. We use apps for everything, from booking a taxi and ordering food, to managing our finances. In this world, most people use Android phones rather than iPhones. On Android phones, APK files are used. Essentially, APK stands for Android Package Kit, which is the file format that Android uses for its apps. It’s similar to how Windows PC uses .exe files, or how Macs use .dmg files. Usually, people download and install apps directly from the Google Play Store, where all apps are checked and verified safe by Google. However, in some instances, you might want to download apps from other sources, which can be delivered as APK files.
Why might you want to do this? Well, sometimes, certain apps might not be available in your region, or you might want a particular version of an app that’s no longer available on the Play Store. There are also those who use phones where the Google Play Store is not supported. Additionally, many people are concerned about their privacy and prefer not to use any Google services, so they choose to download APK files instead. In such cases, APKs can be handy. However, with the freedom of downloading apps from anywhere comes the risk of inadvertently installing something harmful.
Checking if an APK is safe is not too difficult but is a necessity in these times when cyber threats are increasing day by day. Therefore, it is quite necessary to check if the APK is safe or not. In this article, we’ll explain everything about APK files and how you can determine whether they are safe or not.
What is an APK File?
APK stands for Android Package Kit (also Android Application Package). It’s the package file format that the Android operating system uses for the distribution and installation of mobile applications. The APK format encapsulates all elements that an app needs to install correctly on your device. It includes compiled application code, resources, assets, certificates, and manifest file. If you’ve ever downloaded an app from the Google Play Store, you’ve essentially downloaded an APK file without realizing it.
What is Under the APK file?
APK file is a ZIP archive, which is a standard format that can contain multiple files compressed together to save space. You can actually open an APK file with any ZIP decompression tool to explore its contents.
Inside, you will typically find these directories and files:
- META-INF directory: Contains the manifest file, certificate of the application, and a SHA1 digest of all the included files.
- lib directory: Contains the compiled code that is specific to a software layer of a processor.
- res directory: Holds resources not compiled into resources.arsc.
- assets directory: Provides a place to include arbitrary files required by the app.
- AndroidManifest.xml: Enumerates the app’s components, permissions, minimum Android version, and other data.
- classes.dex: The compiled Java classes to be run on the device.
- resources.arsc: A file containing precompiled resources, such as binary XML for example.
Why Would You Need an APK File?
Most Android users will never see the need to deal with APK files directly as Google Play Store handles app downloads and installations. However, there are several reasons why you might want to use APKs:
- Early Access/Beta versions: Developers often release beta versions of their app as APK files for testers and early adopters.
- Access apps not available in your region: Some apps are restricted to certain regions. Using APK files, users can bypass regional restrictions.
- Use apps not available on Google Play Store: Some apps are removed from the Google Play Store due to policy violations. However, you can still get these apps by downloading their APK files.
- Backup and Version control: You can keep APKs for backup purposes or to revert to a previous version if an update causes issues.
Different Ways to Check Whether APK is Safe or Not?
- VirusTotal Tool
- Hash Droid Tool
- MetaDefender Tool
VirusTotal is one of the most trustable and popular APK scanning tools that analyzes files and URLs for viruses, worms, trojans, and other kinds of malicious content. It uses a variety of antivirus engines, website scanners, file, and URL analysis tools. In this tool, you can directly upload the APK file. The service will then scan the file with over 60 different antivirus tests. These tests check for various types of malware that could be hiding within the APK file. Once the scan is complete, VirusTotal provides a detailed report showing the results from each antivirus engine. It’s the most user-friendly tool and it doesn’t require any technical expertise. It’s a popular choice for many users due to its thorough analysis and the fact that it’s free of charge.
How to Scan APK with VirusTotal
1. Open the URL- https://www.virustotal.com/. After opening the URL you’ll see this page. Don’t Sign Up.
2. Click on the ‘Choose File’ option, and then upload the APK file that you want to scan. Alternatively, you can directly drag the file onto this page.
3. After uploading the APK, you will see the following screen. In this section, you will find the complete report regarding hashtags and more. If the circle is green, it means the file is clean and 100% safe to download.
4. If the circle portion is red, it indicates the presence of a hidden virus inside the file, making it unsafe to download. Downloading such a file may compromise your security.
Hash Droid Tool
After Virustotal the best way to scan the APK file is Hash Droid. It is an effective tool used to verify the integrity of APK files through hash values. A hash value, or simply a “hash”, is a unique string of characters that represents a larger dataset. In the case of an APK file, its hash value serves as a digital fingerprint. Hash Droid is an application that is available on the Google Play store and it allows you to calculate the hash value of your APK file right on your Android device. Here’s how to use it:
1. Install Hash Droid from Google Play.
2. Select ‘Hash a File’.
3. Under ‘Select a hash’, choose ‘SHA-256’.
4. Choose the APK file you want to check.
5. Tap on Calculate.
6. You should now see the APK’s hash data, which will look something like this: ce2f4a34d090f7515e61a10383532d0c871f181a5abfc67bb6751cf4e423a6c4. As an example, this is the original AdGuard hash.
7. Now, compare this hash with the one provided publicly by the app’s developers. If they match, you can be confident that the APK is safe and has not been altered. This process is more reliable than Virustotal to ensure that you’re downloading the correct and safe version of an app.
MetaDefender is another valuable tool for analyzing the safety of APK files, providing a more detailed scan report compared to some other tools. An added advantage is that it doesn’t have file size limits, meaning you can check large games and apps on this platform without any hassle. Like VirusTotal, MetaDefender scans files for various types of malicious elements, but it offers a more comprehensive report. Therefore, if you have already checked an APK file using VirusTotal, you might want to run it through MetaDefender as well, for a more thorough analysis.
Here’s how to use MetaDefender:
1. Visit the MetaDefender website.- https://metadefender.opswat.com/
2. In the above image, there is a white block in this place where you can upload the APK file or you can directly drag your file here.
3. After uploading Click on the blue ‘Process’ button to start the analysis.
4. It will take 3-7 seconds, depending upon the size, and then display the result. Below, I have shared the result of one file that I have uploaded. This file was safe; therefore, no threats were detected. So, it’s 100% safe to view.
5. Suppose the file is corrupted. In such a case, the results will appear as shown in the image below. Here, threats are detected, indicating that the file is not safe to use – it’s a corrupted one
6. You can also obtain a full report. I have shared an image below for reference. In the left corner, you must click on ‘Multiscanning’, after which you will receive a report similar to the one I have shown in the image.
In conclusion, while the convenience and freedom of downloading APK files from various sources can be appealing, it also comes with potential risks. The APK files could contain malicious elements that could harm your device or compromise your data. Therefore, it’s crucial to check the safety of these files before installation.
Tools such as VirusTotal, Hash Droid, and MetaDefender provide valuable assistance in this regard. They can help identify harmful elements in the APK files and provide a certain level of safety assurance. Remember, however, that no tool can offer a 100% guarantee against all threats, so it’s still crucial to exercise caution. Whenever possible, it’s best to stick to downloading apps directly from trusted sources like the Google Play Store. But if you need to download APK files from other sources, make sure to scan them using one or more of the tools mentioned above to minimize the risk. In this digital age, staying vigilant and taking proactive steps towards cybersecurity can go a long way in protecting your device and data.