Long gone are the days when computers were widely viewed as virus-ridden machines that few would consider safe for carrying out routine activities like shopping and banking.
However, while digital security has come a long way in recent years, cybercrime has evolved as well, to become more sophisticated and more dangerous. In fact, the McAfee Labs Threat Report detected an average of 419 threats per minute during the second quarter of 2020.
For anyone who thinks they don’t need antivirus software in 2021, these figures should be a sobering wake-up call. It’s not just about protecting your computer either – but also your files and your personal or financial information. Depending on your computer and operating system and what you use them for, adding extra protection on top of what’s built-in can be an absolute necessity.
In this article, we’ll explain why.
Some operating systems are more susceptible than others to malicious software. For example, 91% of ransomware targets Windows, while 76% target Windows Server systems, which are widely used in businesses. By contrast, only 7% of ransomware targets macOS X, which runs on Apple Macintosh desktops and laptops. The obvious trend here is that cyber attackers tend to target the most popular operating systems.
If you’re using a modern operating system like Windows 10 or macOS, you may not think you need additional antivirus software. After all, the Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center is now an integral part of Windows, and it’s enabled by default. macOS has a similar range of built-in tools to protect against viruses and other threats.
Before things like firewalls and antivirus became integral components of operating systems, having a third-party tool like those offered by McAfee or Bitdefender was a practical necessity. When built-in antimalware first made its way into operating systems, it often didn’t impress, scoring abysmally low marks in independent lab tests. However, things have improved a lot to the extent these free tools can now compete with many premium offerings.
That said, integrated antivirus software hasn’t entirely stolen the spotlight away from premium solutions. For example, the SmartScreen filter in the Microsoft Edge browser blocks far fewer phishing websites than solutions provided by industry leaders like McAfee and Bitdefender. In other words, free built-in digital security services don’t provide the same breadth of protection that leading third-party security providers do. They might be adequate for everyday use, but if you routinely deal with sensitive data, and especially if you share your computer or network connection with others, then it’s worth considering investing in a third-party antivirus suite.
Computer viruses have been around for decades, but while the term is still frequently used to refer to all kinds of malware, true viruses are now very rare.
Like their biological counterparts, computer viruses are self-replicating, and they can spread quickly by attaching themselves to otherwise legitimate programmes. In most cases, a computer virus stays dormant unless you run the infected file, but antivirus software should prevent this from happening by quarantining the offending file. If the virus can be successfully removed from the infected file, it will be put back into service.
Strictly speaking, true computer viruses are now almost obsolete, accounting for just 10% of malware, but that’s not to say you don’t need to use antivirus software. Antivirus software also protects you from a multitude of other digital threats.
While the media and the average end-user might refer to all of these threats as viruses, they are, at least in technical terms, very different things. The most common forms of malware now include spyware, ransomware, trojans, and cryptojacking malware. Actual computer viruses might now be largely extinct, but as cyberattacks continue to become more sophisticated, it has never been more important to ensure you’re protected.
Every day, new malware and other online threats emerge. The AV-TEST labs, which tests and evaluates antivirus software, currently registers more than 350,000 malicious applications and potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) every day. These range in severity from dangerous malware designed to steal personal or financial information to annoying adware and other junk applications. A comprehensive antivirus solution should protect against all these threats, no matter how severe they are.
Comprehensive antivirus software can help protect you from new and emerging threats too. Most premium solutions, for example, provide heuristic scanning. This is a proactive method that looks for suspicious behaviors on your computer rather than known malware signatures alone. While conventional scanning works rather like a vaccine, in that someone needs to get infected first, heuristics help detect unknown threats such as zero-day malware that hasn’t yet been discovered by security analysts.
Antivirus software or, more accurately in today’s terms, antimalware software, still plays a key role in protecting you from threats like ransomware, spyware, and keyloggers. That said, it is just one of several layers of protection you need to keep your information and your files safe.
Ideally, you don’t want any kind of malware getting anywhere near your computer in the first place. That’s why you also need a firewall to monitor and protect your internet connection. The built-in firewall in Windows does quite a good job of keeping your network safe but again, a premium option will often provide better protection as well as further customization options.
Fortunately, Windows and other operating systems already have multi-layered security built-in. The Windows Security Center, for example, includes antimalware software, device security, app and browser control, account protection, and firewall and network protection. These tools are designed with the average user in mind, and they work unobtrusively in the background to help keep you safe.
Investing in a premium third-party security suite can build upon these capabilities to provide additional layers of protection and offer greater customisability. This is definitely worth thinking about if you routinely use your computer for exchanging highly sensitive information, such as legal contracts. Businesses should also consider investing in premium-grade security since it’s not just their data they need to look after, but that which belongs to their customers too.
Writing malware is no easy job, especially when it comes to developing malicious code that can outwit today’s operating systems and cutting-edge security software. It’s no wonder then, that cybercriminals are becoming less interested in technical attacks like writing malware and hacking their way past security controls. Instead, they’re going after the easier target – you!
It’s perhaps the most common misconception of all that digital security is an entirely technical discipline that belongs squarely to the realms of geekery. The pervasive hacker stereotype hasn’t helped change this perception either! The truth is that security is, first and foremost, a human problem.
Social engineering scams have been around for as long as the crime itself, and they are designed to dupe unsuspecting victims into taking a desired action. Today’s digital world gives them many more opportunities to do that, and it’s much easier than coding malware or trying to hack through modern encryption algorithms.
Phishing is the most common type of social engineering attack, with around 90% of security incidents targeting companies including a phishing element. Phishing attacks are intended to lure internet users to reveal personal information, such as passwords or payment card details, on a fake webpage or email form purporting to be from a legitimate company.
Targeted scams, which are known as spear-phishing, are by far the most dangerous since they build trust by demonstrating personal knowledge about the target. For example, you might receive a very genuine-looking email from someone you actually know or a company you do business with. Sometimes, the email might even come from a legitimate address that has been compromised. Unsurprisingly, these attacks are adept at evading anti-phishing software.
Fortunately, most antivirus software provides protection against common social engineering scams by blocking known phishing websites. In fact, it’s safe to say that anti-phishing software is just as important as antivirus software. That said, you should never place too much trust in these solutions since attackers will always find new ways to reach their targets.
While antivirus and anti-phishing software will undoubtedly help keep you safe, there is no substitute for staying alert and always thinking before you click. Remember, that no security solution is ever going to be perfect, and you are ultimately the first and last line of defense when it comes to keeping your digital life safe.