What is Google Play Protect?

Google Play Protect
(Image credit: Jerry Hildenbrand)

What is Google Play Protect?

Best answer: Google Play Protect is the collective name for Google's online and offline security components that make sure the apps on your phone are safe and secure no matter where you downloaded them.

Google Play Protect does more than scan for malware

Google Play Protect app showing recently scanned apps

(Image credit: Android Central)

Most people who have heard of Google Play Protect think of it as a great malware scanner for Android apps. It is, but it encompasses a lot more than that. It's a full suite of protective services for your Android phone.

Play Protect uses both on-device and cloud services to secure your phone, starting at the most vulnerable place: the application layer. Once you install apps to your phone, even the company that built it has no control over everything that could possibly happen, and that's where tools like the ones Play Protect offers come into the picture.

Play Protect has both an on-device component and a cloud component.

Google says Play Protect is the most widely deployed threat protection service in the world. That's because it's part of every Android device that uses Google's Mobile Services and there are over two billion of them. If your phone has access to the Play Store, it's covered by Google Play Protect.

While it does more than scan for malware, Play Protect does scan all the apps — including ones you didn't download from Google Play —  on every Android phone every single day, meaning it's looking for bad apples amongst over 100 billion apps. It also regularly checks to make sure it has the latest information to find them.

Google has its own name for malware: Potentially Harmful Applications.

When a PHA (Google's term meaning Potentially Harmful Application) is found, several different things might happen. You'll always be notified that Play Protect found something it thinks is a PHA, but based on the severity of what the bad app can do, it may be disabled or completely removed from your phone. It could even be blocked so it can never be installed again.

When Play Protect disables an app it thinks is harmful, you can decide to re-enable it on your own and then no further action is taken unless the app is updated or it changes its capabilities in the future.

Garmin Forerunner 745 Find My Phone feature

(Image credit: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central)

Another part of Play Protect is the Find My Device service. Find My Device is enabled by default on every Android phone running version Android 4.4 or newer. You can use an app or the web to locate and ring your lost phone, check the last connected Wi-Fi point, check its battery level, lock it so nobody can have access, and finally, erase all your information if you're unable to retrieve it.

As long as you have the Find My Device service enabled (you did this during your phone's setup process), you only need to visit google.com/find on any web browser to use it.

It starts in the cloud

Google Cloud Tensor Processing Units

(Image credit: Google)

Like almost everything Google does, Play Protect begins in the cloud — both for apps you installed from the Play Store and methods to inspect apps you downloaded from somewhere else.

After an app is uploaded to the Play Store but before it becomes available for downloading, Google analyzes and reviews it. Most of this analysis is done using machine learning, but sometimes a human touch is required.

Like most things from Google, Play Protect all starts in the cloud.

Apps are also subject to an internal review to ensure they comply with Google Play's policies before they are available for download. Google checks if developers have complied with the Developer Distribution Agreement using an automated system. It makes sure an app follows the rules when it comes to things like billing information and data collection.

If the automated checker finds anything suspicious during these procedures, the app is flagged for a manual review by a Google security analyst. Sometimes we hear about apps making it through this process, but not very often. 

In addition, Google can analyze apps downloaded from third-party sources the same way as long as you have allowed Play Protect to Improve harmful app detection in your phone's App security settings. And you should.

This optional setting helps Google develop new ways to detect harmful behavior. When combined with things like reports from third parties who have found harmful apps and heuristics, Google Play Protect can keep your phone safe from dangerous apps you sideloaded using the very same tools it uses for apps from the Play Store.

It just works

Nothing is ever really perfect, but Google Play Protect is an example of a software suite that does exactly what it advertises and just what it needs to do. It won't disrupt the way you use your phone, requires no installation or setup, and is always working to make things better for all of us.

That's the kind of product we all love to see and the types of services that make the best Android phones even better.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.