What is antivirus software?

Antivirus is cybersecurity software that detects and removes malicious software (malware) from a computer, device, or network. If your network has end users, antivirus software is essential in the prevention of data breaches. Read on to learn more about how antivirus works, the risks of malware and ransomware, and more.

About antivirus software

Also known as anti-malware, antivirus software protects devices and systems from various types of harmful software, typically delivered via email. Antivirus aims to detect viruses, worms, trojan horses, spyware, adware, and ransomware. The primary purpose of antivirus software is to protect computers and data from being compromised or damaged by these malicious programs.

Here are some critical functions of antivirus software:

  • Virus Detection: Antivirus programs use various methods to identify known and emerging threats. This includes signature-based detection, which involves matching the patterns or signatures of known malware, and heuristic-based detection, which looks for behaviors or characteristics common to malware.
  • Malware Prevention: Antivirus software aims to prevent malware from infecting a device or system. This may involve real-time scanning of files and programs, monitoring network traffic, and blocking suspicious activities.
  • Destruction/Removal of Viruses: Antivirus software takes action to remove or quarantine the malicious files if malware is detected. This process helps prevent further damage and protects the system and data.
  • Monitoring and Scanning: Antivirus programs often provide options for on-demand or scheduled scans of the entire system, specific drives, or individual files and folders. Scans help identify and eliminate potential threats that may have infiltrated the system.

How does antivirus software work?

Antivirus software detects, prevents, and removes malicious software, commonly known as malware, from a computer or network. Here's a general overview of how antivirus software works:

  • Signature-Based Detection: Antivirus software programs maintain a database of known malware signatures. These signatures are unique characteristics or patterns that can identify specific malware. When you run a virus scan, the antivirus software compares the files on your computer against its signature database. If a file matches a known malware signature, it is flagged as malicious.
  • Heuristic-Based Detection: Antivirus software also uses heuristics to identify potentially malicious behavior or characteristics that may not be explicitly defined in the signature database.
  • Behavioral Analysis: The program may analyze the behavior of a program or file to determine if it acts like malware. For example, if a file tries to access a large number of files rapidly or attempts to hide its presence, it might be flagged as suspicious.
  • Sandboxing: Some advanced antivirus solutions use sandboxing, which involves running suspicious files in a virtual environment separate from the rest of the system. If the file exhibits malicious behavior in the sandbox, the antivirus software can take appropriate action.
  • Cloud-Based Detection: Many modern antivirus solutions rely on cloud-based databases and analysis. When a new file is encountered, the antivirus software may send information about the file to the cloud for analysis. This allows the antivirus program to benefit from the collective intelligence of an extensive network of users.
  • Real-Time Protection: Antivirus software often provides real-time protection by actively monitoring the system for suspicious activity. This can include monitoring files and network activity to detect and block potential threats.
  • Automatic Updates: Antivirus software requires regular updates to combat new and evolving threats. These updates include the latest virus definitions, security patches, and other improvements to enhance the software's ability to identify and address new threats. Antivirus databases are constantly updated to include information about new threats. Regular updates ensure that the antivirus software can recognize and respond to the latest malware.
  • Quarantine and Removal: If the antivirus software detects a malicious file, it may quarantine the file, isolating it from the rest of the system to prevent further damage. Users can then decide whether to delete or restore the quarantined file.

New and sophisticated malware can sometimes evade detection, which is why it's essential to practice safe computing habits, such as keeping software up to date, being cautious of email attachments and links, and using strong, unique passwords.

How are traditional antivirus and next-generation antivirus software different?

Traditional antivirus software is deployed on a computer and keeps an eye out for signatures to protect against known attacks. The software must be installed on-site, and it can take weeks or months to deploy.

Next-generation antivirus software, on the other hand, uses artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies to stop known and unknown attacks. The software identifies suspicious behaviors and threats, even if they have not been previously used in cyberattacks. It can be deployed in hours and doesn't require any updates.

What are the risks of not using antivirus software?

The number one risk of forgoing antivirus software is that you open the door for malware to infect your user devices and systems. Malware attacks pose significant risks to individuals, organizations, and even nations.

Here are some of the key risks associated with viruses and malware attacks:

  • Data Loss or Theft: Malware can be designed to steal sensitive information such as personal details, financial information, intellectual property, or login credentials. This can be used for identity theft, financial fraud, or sold on the dark web.
  • Financial Loss: Malware can cause financial damage by disrupting business operations, leading to downtime and loss of revenue. Ransomware can encrypt files or systems, demanding payment for their release.
  • System Disruption and Downtime: Malware can disrupt normal system operations, leading to downtime and loss of productivity. Disruption is particularly damaging for businesses that rely heavily on their IT infrastructure.
  • Reputation Damage: A successful malware attack can tarnish an individual's or organization's reputation. Customers and clients may lose trust if they perceive that their data is not secure.
  • Intellectual Property Theft: Malware can target and exfiltrate intellectual property (IP), trade secrets, and other proprietary information. This can have long-term consequences for businesses that rely on innovation and unique offerings.
  • Compromised Security: Some malware is designed to disable or bypass security measures, leaving systems vulnerable to further attacks. This can lead to a perpetual cycle of security breaches.
  • Network Compromise: Malware can spread across networks, infecting multiple systems and devices. This can result in a broader and more severe impact on an organization's infrastructure.
  • Botnet Formation: Malware can be used to create botnets, a type of cyber attack that involves controlling computers controlled by a central server. These botnets can be used for various malicious activities, such as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
  • Legal Risk: Organizations may face legal consequences for failing to protect sensitive data or for being the source of a malware attack. Data protection laws and data privacy regulations impose strict requirements on how personal and sensitive information is handled.

To mitigate these risks, individuals and organizations should implement robust cybersecurity measures, including regularly updating software, using antivirus and anti-malware solutions, educating users about phishing and social engineering tactics, and regularly backing up important data.

How should I choose an antivirus software?

Choosing the right antivirus software is crucial for ensuring the security of your computer and data. Here are a few factors to consider when selecting an antivirus program:

  • Detection Effectiveness Rate: Look for antivirus software that has a high detection rate for malware, viruses, and other threats. Check independent test results from organizations like AV-Test or AV-Comparatives for performance evaluations.
  • Modern Security Features: Consider the features offered by the antivirus software. Common features include real-time scanning, firewall protection, email scanning, and automatic updates. Some may also include additional features like password managers, VPNs, or parental controls.
  • Overall Network System Impact: Evaluate the impact of the antivirus software on your system's performance. Some antivirus programs can be resource-intensive and slow down your computer. Look for a balance between effective protection and minimal impact on system performance.
  • Ease of Use: Choose antivirus software that is user-friendly and easy to navigate. A complicated interface can be frustrating and may lead to errors or missed security settings.
  • Compatibility With Business Systems and Applications: Your antivirus software should be compatible with your operating system and other business applications. Some antivirus programs are designed specifically for Windows, while others also support macOS, Linux, or mobile platforms.
  • Cost: Antivirus software comes in both free and paid versions. While free options can provide basic protection, paid versions often offer more advanced features and better customer support. Consider your budget and the level of protection you need.
  • Customer Support: Check the level of customer support your vendor provides. In case you encounter issues or have questions, responsive customer support can be valuable.
  • Reputation: Research the reputation of the antivirus software and its vendor. Read reviews, both from experts and users, to gain insights into the software's performance, reliability, and customer satisfaction.
  • Frequent Updates: Regular updates are crucial for keeping your antivirus software effective against evolving threats. Ensure that the software receives frequent updates to its virus definitions and program features.
  • Trial Versions: Many antivirus programs offer free trial versions. Take advantage of the trial offers to test the software's features, performance, and compatibility with your system before making a final decision.

Remember, no antivirus software can provide 100% security, so it's also important to practice proper cybersecurity hygiene, such as regularly updating your operating system and software, being cautious with email attachments, and avoiding suspicious websites.

Can I outsource my antivirus protection?

Yes, antivirus solutions are often available from managed security service providers (MSSPs). MSSPs offer a range of security solutions and services, and antivirus protection is commonly included in their offerings. These services are designed to help businesses enhance their cybersecurity posture without the need for in-house expertise in managing and maintaining security solutions.

MSSPs can provide antivirus software, deploy and manage it across an organization's network, ensure that the software is up to date, and monitor for any security threats. This model is particularly beneficial for businesses that prefer to outsource their IT management and security functions, allowing them to focus on their core activities while relying on experts to handle their IT infrastructure and security.

When considering an MSSP for antivirus services, it's essential to assess their capabilities, experience, and the specific features of the antivirus solution they provide. Additionally, businesses should ensure that the MSSP follows best practices for security and regulatory compliance to protect sensitive data and maintain a secure environment.

The last word on antivirus software

Sophos Intercept X antivirus software delivers high-impact server and container security for on-premises, data center, and cloud. Sophos Intercept X with Extended Detection and Response (XDR) has been rated the #1 XDR solution by G2 users in their spring 2023 reports (March 2023).

Benefits include:

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Sign up for a free trial of Intercept X today. If you already have an active Sophos Central account, you can start your trial from the Sophos Central Admin Console. Log in to Sophos Central, click Free Trials, and select Intercept X Advanced for Server with XDR.

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