There was a time when anti-virus software was the height of computer security, especially if you were a Windows user. But the landscape of threats has changed, and we live in an era of sweeping, global campaigns, like the ransomware “WannaCry” infection and the more recent Ukraine-focused “NotPetya” attack. What role do anti-virus and antimalware software play in keeping your machine safe? We spoke with four security experts to hear what they had to say.
Across the board, each expert still recommends using software that protects your personal computer from attack. But modern anti-virus software is not the last word in defending your computer; rather, it’s part of a multi-faceted approach involving some common-sense steps to keep your machine and personal information safe.
No connected machine is totally immune
Bob Gourley, the co-founder of the security consultancy firm Cognitio and veteran of the intelligence community, says that his company recommends that people install protective software, as it will mitigate the risks people face.
“There’s a lot of security professionals who will point out that anti-virus software will not stop everything,” he says. “That’s true—it’s not the last line of defense. But it helps keep the noise down.”
His specific recommendation is that Mac users may want to use Sophos, which has a free antimalware program, and that Windows users should think about Symantec. (I tried the free version of Sophos on my Macbook Air, and it detected a virus hiding in a text document attached to an email that the Mail app had downloaded. I deleted it.)
One issue that Mac users should keep an eye out for, according to Gourley? Adware. This type of code is typically picked up when using the software as a service, like an email or other things that require logging into an account. FCC rules state that adware has to identify itself to prevent classification as “spyware,” but it’s easy to pick up some adware, especially if you speed through those terms of service agreements.
Run a modern system, and keep it updated
Like Gourley, Kurt Baumgartner, a principal security researcher with security company Kaspersky Lab (which makes products that defend against malware and viruses), recommends that individuals use anti-malware software.
While that may not be surprising advice from someone who works at a security company that makes anti-malware software, he also emphasizes the importance of keeping your computer’s other software—especially the operating system—up-to-date in the fight against malicious code.
Take the WannaCry malware attack, also known as WannaCrypt, which struck machines running Windows in May. Microsoft had already provided a software update about two months before, in March, that protected customers running operating systems like Windows 7 or Windows Vista from WannaCry. Machines that hadn’t been updated or that were running older versions like Windows XP were left vulnerable. And Microsoft says that users who were running Windows 10, the most current version of the operating system, weren’t affected by that attack.
As for a recent attack last month, called “Petya” or “NotPetya,” Microsoft said in an article that most of those infections happened in computers running Windows 7.
Don’t forget to keep your anti-virus software, like Windows Defender, updated too. The software can’t fight a threat it doesn’t yet know about, and that information is typically found in regular updates.
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