When people call me to look at a slow running machine (not just a slow internet browsing experience) the first thing I check is what anti-virus/anti-malware solution(s) are installed. More often than not I find multiple versions of both. This is definitely a case of more is not better.
Depending on what definition you choose, the difference between a virus and malware gets a little nerdy. In short, both terms refer to malicious software whose purposes range from vandalism, theft and in severe cases extortion. Viruses tend to be programs that spread by replicating themselves around the host machine and in some cases to other machines on the network. Malware (sometimes called ad-ware) infects the host machine by masquerading as a program or service offering a beneficial feature while it’s actual purpose is hidden and malicious. Some will argue nuances of these definitions but I think the keyword to remember here is malicious.
If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.
Security software works by tracking the activity on your computer and looking for known suspicious behavior. It will watch all the files added or changes on your machine. It will track network traffic coming into your computer as well as watch for patterns in active memory. The challenge these solutions have is that they must know the pattern ahead of time. When a new attack is invented there is often a period of time that everyone is vulnerable, regardless of their anti-virus software. The new attack is reported, and the security companies put out updates to their software to protect you from them.
This brings me back to my point about multiple solutions installed and it effecting performance of the computer. Security software is firstly, software. Like any other program on your computer, it takes resources away from your machine to run. As stated above, it monitors the activity on your computer which adds extra load to every operation you perform. This is a good trade of resources for security, however, if you have multiple redundant security software packages, the return on investment can be close to zero. I diagnosed one customer’s computer that had 3 different ad-ware solutions and two anti-virus programs installed. The computer was spending so much time monitoring itself that the owner couldn’t use it enough to get in trouble. Not the ideal solution to security concerns.
Well, you can’t have that, but if you’re an American citizen you are entitled to:
a heated kidney shaped pool…
— The Tubes, What do you want from life
So, my 80’s roots aside, let’s get down to brass tax. What’s the best security software to buy. My answer is, don’t buy any of them. If you are using Windows 8 or above, Microsoft has you covered as part of the operating system. But is it the best security solution? The truth is any security package can drop the ball when a new threat makes it’s way into the wild. So, some days, yes, it’s the best and other days it leaves you hanging. It has a couple other key advantages however. First, it’s free, which is a price I like. Second, Microsoft has a large vested interest in Windows being secure and running smoothly. This means they are likely to stay on top of the updates. Lastly, in my experience, they have a good balance between load on the system and the security provided.
If you don’t have Windows 8 or 10, my first recommendation is upgrade. From a security perspective, remaining near to the latest version of your operating system is a good investment. Can’t afford to upgrade, or stuck on an older version due to hardware limitations or compatibility issues? Any of the well known brands of anti virus will provide equal protection. Norton, McAfee, AVG are all well known and reliable. There are some extra steps you can take though to keep yourself up and running.
You can have all the latest security software out there and still fall victim to attack. The &%^$heads that create some of these attacks are pretty good at their job. They are often talented software developers who are also adept at social engineering. Before the computer age we would have likely referred to these people as Grifters or Conmen. Not only is this an arms race with periods of vulnerability before the good guys catch up, we can also be fooled into allowing access to our machines. Here’s a couple things you can do to cover the gap.
- If you don’t know what will happen when you click “OK”, then click “Cancel”. By far, the most common way my customer’s computers get infected is because they unknowingly installed the virus. If you get a popup and you aren’t absolutely sure where it came from or what it will do, click Cancel. No cancel button? The safest thing to do is restart your computer.
- When you update software, Java or Flash for example, watch for checkboxes that offer to install extra “helpful” utilities. Uncheck those boxes.
- Keep your security software and your operating system updated. At least one night a week, leave your computer running and let Microsoft install their updates. Microsoft will update their security software during this process as well.
- There’s no free lunch. There is very little software or services out on the internet that are truly free and those that are usually come with a catch. Before you accept that free offer, ask yourself “how are they making money from this?”. If your answer is “I don’t know” there’s a good chance that they could be making it buy selling your private information to marketers or Russian mobsters. I’m not kidding.
Being safe on the internet is not terribly different than staying safe when walking through a city. There is much to see of value, but it’s probably best to stay out of alleys and areas that are unlit. I hope that this article adds to your internet survival skills. Still have questions, feel free to ask them on my Facebook page. Want more information on this topic? I do one on one tutoring as well as basic security classes for home and business users. Has your computer ground to a snails pace and can’t figure out what’s going on? Give me a call, I Speak Nerd.