Is it safe to use an old Android phone?

With flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro costing over $1,000, it's more tempting than ever to pick up a bargain, refurbished phone. But while you can pick up a used Samsung Galaxy, Sony or HTC phone that's of good quality for a very low price, is it actually safe to use them? Phones released years ago run outdated versions of Android. That may well mean that they don't have critical security updates which can keep you -- and your data -- safe from prying eyes. If you're concerned about security and privacy on your previously owned phone, here's some things you should consider.Loading...Load Error
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What is a security patch?

Whenever hackers discover a new hole in your phone's software to exploit, phone-makers usually get it fixed, and that fix is sent out to your phone to make sure that nobody can take advantage of it. That's a security patch. You'll likely have received plenty of them over time as cybercriminals are always trying to find new ways to circumvent the security on your phone. It's a continual cycle of identifying threats, solving them, then finding the next one.

Most of the time, you'll never know about it, but it's the thing that's keeping your phone up to date and protected against known threats.

Why do manufacturers stop sending out security patches?

Manufacturers such as Samsung , Sony, Google and HTC only provide support to a phone for so long. Each new handset that's released and each new version of Android requires new threat assessment and patching. That's a lot of work and it means that finding and patching those holes for every single handset spanning years and years just becomes unfeasible. As a result, Google and the phone-makers eventually have to cut support for older handsets, usually once a device gets to be two or three years old. Those handsets then will no longer receive security updates meaning that when a threat is detected on that phone, it simply won't be fixed.

So using an out-of-date phone isn't safe?

As Christoph Hebeisen, director of security intelligence firm Lookout explains, "We do not consider it safe to run a device that does not receive security patches. Critical security vulnerabilities become public knowledge every few weeks, or months, and once a system is out of support, then users who continue to run it become susceptible to exploitation of known vulnerabilities." According to Hebeisen, a vulnerable phone could allow full access to everything that's on your phone, including your personal and company emails, contact information, listening to your phone calls or accessing your banking details. A hacker could continue to see this information for as long as you continue using the compromised handset.Paul Ducklin, principal research scientist at security firm Sophos agrees, saying, "If your phone has a software vulnerability that crooks already know how to exploit, for example to steal data or implant malware, then that vulnerability is going to be with you forever."

How do I know if my phone is out of date?

Finding out if your phone is still supported and receiving security patches often isn't straightforward. To start, go into Settings and check your software updates. Install the latest version. Usually it'll give you some indication of when the phone was last updated. If your phone says it has the latest software, but that latest version was installed many months or years ago, it's bad news. Your phone is probably no longer supported.

Sadly, manufacturers don't give you a big warning that tells you when they've dropped support for a phone, so you either find out through a rude awakening like I mentioned above or figure it out yourself through some other means.

A good rule of thumb is that a phone will no longer be supported if it's two to three years old. This varies from company to company, however. Google, for example, states that it makes security updates available for Android versions 8.0, 8.1, 9.0 and 10. Its Pixel phones get security updates for "at least three years" from when they went on sale and Google also mandates that manufacturers must provide at least two years of updates for devices. Apple , by comparison, still provides software updates for phones going back five years, because it has relatively few models to manage. The latest iOS 13 can be installed on 2015's iPhone 6S . Finding out if your Android phone is supported will involve some digging. I found Nokia's tool for seeing updates of its phones after going through a series of support pages on its website. Samsung sent me its list after I contacted its PR team, but it's available online here. Google itself has a page that clearly tells you when your Pixel or Nexus phone will lose security support. (Spoiler alert: All Nexus phones and the first-gen Pixel are out of support, with the Pixel 2 losing support this October.) Your best place to start is with the support pages on your phone manufacturer's website.

You might not notice immediately if your phone is out of date. The most obvious sign you're on old software might be when you look for new apps to download. Many apps will simply be incompatible due to the software and hardware limitations on your phone and you won't be able to install them.

How can I tell if my phone has been hacked?

Whether you ever notice if your phone's security is compromised is difficult to say. Cybercriminals don't exactly make it known they've accessed your device, so you'll need to look for signs. Popups that might appear on the phone are a big giveaway, as are any apps that suddenly appear that you didn't download.

Look out for unexplained high data usage too, as it could be that malicious apps are using a lot of data in the background. Other indicators can also include unusually high battery usage and sluggish performance, but both of these can also be attributed to using older hardware that degrades over time.

How can I keep myself safe if I have an old phone?

As Hebeisen says, the best way to keep yourself safe is simply to not use a phone that's no longer supported. If you're short on money, can't afford to upgrade just yet or you're using an older phone temporarily for whatever reason, there are a couple of things you can do that could help.

First, you should make sure the phone has the latest software installed. If you've bought it used, make sure to fully factory-reset the phone. Ensure that you only download apps from the Google Play Store (rather than from third-party or unofficial app stores) and certainly avoid installing apps by downloading the APK file from a website. This can often be a way of malicious software weaseling its way into a phone.

Read more: The best Android VPNs of 2020

12 awesome cheap phones you can buy right now

  • a woman wearing a hat talking on a cell phone: When it comes to cheap, good phones, we're really living in a world of plenty. Costs have dropped and software is getting better, which means that inexpensive phones with last year's parts (or even parts that were made the year before) are still going to serve you well. Here are the top cheap phones we love.Editors' note: This gallery was originally published in November 2014, and is updated frequently.
  • a close up of a man with glasses eating a hot dog: Price: $449, £449 and AU$749Even as the cheapest iPhone you can buy new from Apple, 2016's iPhone 7 is still the priciest phone in this roundup. But it's a decent device. True, it doesn't have the latest and greatest processor or a fancy iPhone XS-type design. But it's still water resistant, has a satisfactory camera with optical image stabilization and a physical home button.
  • a screen shot of a computer: Price: $130 to $210 depending on the carrier, converts to about £98 to £159 and AU$175 to AU$282.Though its camera and processing speeds are only so-so, the J3 is a sub-$250 Galaxy phone that has a removable battery and a compact design.
  • a hand holding a cellphone: Price: $230, £196 and AU$399The Moto G6 has a near-stock version of Android Oreo, good dual-rear cameras, fast charging and a sleek design. And while its battery doesn't last as long as last year's Moto G5 or G5 Plus, it's still a great value with a decent battery life.
  • screen of a cell phone: Price: $194, £170, AU$299Unlike the previous Moto G6, the Moto G6 Play has more than a decent battery life -- it has excellent battery life and a smaller price tag. It also features a 5.7-inch screen, an octa-core processor and a splashproof design.
  • a bag sitting on top of a table: Price: $180, £110 and AU$323Though it may not be as swanky as Nokia's 8 Sirocco flagship, the Nokia 6 from 2018 is still a great value. It has a 5.5-inch screen, a Snapdragon 630 chipset and a 16-megapixel camera. The phone is available in the US, UK and Australia and is a good deal wherever you buy it.There's also newer Nokia 6.1, which is still pretty cheap at $225, £229 and AU$380. It promises to be 60 percent faster than the original 6.
  • a hand holding a cellphone: Price: $144 to $192 depending on the carrier, which converts to about £113 to £150 and AU$195 to AU$261. Though only available in North America, the E5 Play is still a solid midrange phone. It has a 5.2-inch display, an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 2,800mAh removable battery.
  • a hand holding a cell phone: Price: $180, converts to about £140 and AU$252.The Blade Max 2S serves as the sequel to 2017's Max XL. It too has a 6-inch display and a 4,000mAh battery. However, it runs the more recent Android 8.0 Oreo software, it has only a single 13-megapixel rear camera (and a 5-megapixel camera on the front), and it's powered by a 1.4GHz octa-core processor.
  • a desktop computer monitor sitting on top of a table: Price: £130, converts to about $280 or AU$355.The Honor 9 Lite doesn't seem to have any of the usual compromises you'd expect when getting a budget phone. That being said, we love its elegant blue design, expansive 5.6-inch display and four (!) cameras. Unfortunately, you can't nab this phone in the US.
  • Price: $200, £170, converts to AU$275Unlike the previous Honor 9 Lite, the Honor 7X is available in the US for a super-affordable price. The phone has a unibody metal design along with a big 5.9-inch display with thin bezels, a fingerprint scanner and expandable storage.
  • Price: $150, £154, converts to AU$204Equipped with a 6-inch display, the E5 Plus is the biggest phone of Motorola's budget E-series. It also sports a 12-megapixel camera, an octa-core processor and a generous 5,000mAh battery.
  • a stereo sitting on a table: Price: $280 (or $200 with Amazon-sponsored ads), converts to about £215 or AU$355The Idol 5S has a premium build, amazing speakers and a fingerprint reader -- all while being affordable. Just be cautious that its battery life isn't so stellar. At 7 hours and 48 minutes, it's the shortest run time we logged from any phone in the past two years.
  • a black and red suitcase: Price: Estimated to go for $85, £60 or AU$110As Nokia's cheapest phone from its MWC 2018 lineup, the Nokia 1 also runs Android One, like ZTE's Tempo Go, and has a plastic design. But don't let that deter you. It comes in some stylish colors and it has a removable battery, two SIM-card slots and expandable storage.
  • a hand holding a cell phone
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