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Cyber Risk Management

Antivirus 101: Ensuring Safe Digital Experience

31 Aug 2023
Understanding and Using Antivirus Software: A Complete Guide - Responsible Cyber

The world of technology is as vast as it is complicated, and one crucial aspect of it that many people do not fully understand is antivirus protection. Many of us have been told of the importance of having antivirus software installed on our devices, from smartphones and tablets to laptops and personal computers. But what is it? What does it do? And how do you go about choosing the right antivirus software among the many options available?

This article will dive deep into these topics, providing an in-depth understanding of antivirus software, how it functions, and how to pick the right one from the sea of options in the market. Let's get started.

 

What Is Antivirus Protection?

At its most basic level, antivirus software is designed to preventatively detect, neutralise, and eliminate malware from your devices. It achieves this by scanning your devices and cross-checking files with frequently updated databases of known malware and viruses. However, contemporary antivirus software isn't limited to only scanning and comparing. They can also spot suspicious behavior patterns of files and programs, helping to detect potential malware not yet included in any databases.

Despite these advanced features, no antivirus software can promise 100% accuracy. But by consistently updating their databases and behavior-based detection systems, the top antivirus software offers the best defense against cyber threats.

Is antivirus protection necessary on all devices? The straightforward answer is 'yes.' While some systems may be less susceptible to malware than others, they still require protection against various forms of cyber threats. In the ever-evolving landscape of cyberspace, where new threats emerge almost daily, this kind of protection is indispensable.

 

Features of Antivirus Software

Having an idea of what antivirus protection entails, let's delve into how antivirus software functions and what it scans for.

What Does Antivirus Software Scan For?

Antivirus software scans for several things, both on-demand and on-access. An on-access scanner, or OAS, runs in the background of your device, while an on-demand scanner, or ODS, only scans when you initiate a scan manually or schedule scans in advance. But what is the software scanning for, to begin with?

1. Malware

Short for malicious software, malware encompasses different types of cyber threats, including ransomware, adware, and spyware. The core function of malware is to infiltrate a device without the user's consent or knowledge. Once inside, malware can be used to steal people's personally identifiable information (leading to identity theft) or cause disruptions to the system settings.

Malware can take many forms, such as computer worms (programs that replicate themselves throughout a network to destabilise it) and trojan viruses (malware disguised as legitimate software that allows hackers to access and control devices).

 

2. Scams

Scams take many forms on the internet, and while antivirus software doesn't catch all, it can easily spot those involving malicious websites or attachments. Examples include phishing (email fraud involving emails with malicious attachments or dangerous website links) and pharming (similar to phishing but involving malicious code directly inserted onto a computer or server, redirecting users to fake websites without them clicking anything).

3. Spoofing

This involves someone impersonating someone else to obtain a user's credentials, gain access to their systems, steal information, and spread malware. This can be achieved via email, websites, texts, GPS, and other methods. Antivirus software doesn't monitor for impersonation itself but the malware used to infect victims' computers.

4. Remote Access Attacks

Also known as remote exploit attacks, these malicious actions target one or an entire network of computers. Instead of impacting the computers directly, these attacks exploit the machine’s vulnerabilities to view and steal data, introduce malware and viruses, and more.

5. Viruses

These are malicious code or programs that attach themselves to legitimate files or programs, corrupting data and harming the software itself.


      How Does Antivirus Software Prevent Cyber Threats?

      Antivirus software uses several techniques to prevent these cyber threats:

      1. Reactive File Scanning

      Before you open any new file, the antivirus software scans it against a database of known malware.

      2. Complete System Scans

      Besides individual files, the software also scans entire devices for compromised data.

      3. Web Browsing Protection

      The antivirus software also scans URLs and web pages for potential risks.

      4. Real-time Prevention

      The software scans for threats automatically and constantly, preventing malware from forming.

      5. Rapid Infection and Threat Removal

      If the antivirus software identifies malware, it quarantines the malicious files in a secure folder, allowing the user to review them manually.

      6. Threat Detection Rates

      The efficacy of an antivirus software in detecting threats is dependent on its database. Each company maintains its database of malware, which is updated regularly. This is known as a known-threat database. The detection rate refers to how accurately the software labels clean files versus potential threats, accounting for false positives and false negatives.


          How Does Antivirus Software Detect Cyber Threats?

          Several methods are employed in detecting cyber threats.

          1. Behaviour-based Detection

          Most modern antivirus software uses behaviour-based detection in addition to signature analysis. It looks for code that could make changes to devices without permission or any suspicious behaviour. Unlike signature analysis, behaviour-based detection doesn't rely solely on a database of known malware but can also detect new malware.

          2. Signature Analysis

          This method compares the signature or "fingerprint" of threats to their malware databases. If the threat isn't already in the database, then signature analysis cannot detect it on its own. This is why many software have shifted to a behaviour-based approach.

          3. Heuristic-based Scanning

          This type of scanning identifies "polymorphic viruses," essentially malware with code that changes to evade detection.

          4. Machine Learning

          Machine learning processes file data to detect patterns using computing power.

          5. In-Memory Scanning

          This means potential threats are examined after they've already been downloaded onto a computer or device.

          6. Sandboxing
          This method involves running new programs in a secluded 'sandbox.' If they are found to contain malicious code, they can't infect the rest of the device.


            Additional Features in Antivirus Software

            Many antivirus software packages include additional features, such as:

            1. Parental Controls

            These let parents control what their children are seeing online, what they can search, and how much they're using specific devices.

            2. Firewalls or Network Protection

            Firewalls scan not only devices for threats but also their entire networks. These are usually included for free with antivirus software, although sometimes they're available only in more advanced packages.

            3. Secure Browser

            Secure browsers make sure you don't visit any malicious websites or click on malicious attachments.

            4. Password Manager

            Password managers store all your usernames and passwords in an encrypted vault. They also perform password audits and generate new passwords for any that are old, weak, or repeated.

            5. Encrypted Cloud Storage

            Some packages include a finite amount of encrypted cloud storage for sensitive information files.

            6. System Performance Optimisation

            Some software offers optimisation tools to boost your browsing speed and keep all of your programs up-to-date.

             

            In conclusion, antivirus protection is a vital component of any device’s overall security plan. It shields you from a variety of malicious activities, ranging from classic computer viruses to sophisticated malware, scams, spoofing, and remote access attacks. Modern antivirus software does more than just scan files—it examines behavior patterns, uses machine learning, and offers real-time prevention to ensure robust protection.

            Additional features like parental controls, secure browsers, password managers, and system optimisation tools further enhance the value proposition of these software solutions. However, remember that the effectiveness of an antivirus is dependent on keeping it updated. Cyber threats evolve rapidly, and antivirus software must keep pace to provide the most effective protection.

            As we've seen, the world of antivirus protection is complex, with many features and functions to consider. When choosing antivirus software, it's important to assess your individual needs, the devices you want to protect, and the potential threats you face. By understanding these aspects, you can make an informed choice, ensuring that your digital world remains secure.

            Despite its complexities, one fact remains clear: antivirus software is no longer an optional extra—it is a necessary tool for anyone who values their online safety and privacy. With the right antivirus protection, you can navigate the digital landscape with confidence, safe in the knowledge that your device is secured against the ever-evolving threats of cyberspace.

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