As our reliance on the internet grows, we’re increasingly threatened by an ever-evolving array of online threats.
This miasma of phishing attacks, ransomware and computer viruses is collectively known as malware.
And whereas viruses of the 1990s were primarily designed to cause distress and inconvenience, modern phenomena like ransomware are specifically aimed at defrauding and robbing us.
This year has already seen two high-profile vulnerabilities called Spectre and Meltdown, capable of targeting the central processor units of almost any device.
You don’t even have to open an infected email attachment to become a victim nowadays.
Over three quarters of successful attacks on companies in 2017 were fileless, meaning an action as innocuous as visiting a compromised website was enough to expose a computer to infection.
There are viruses lurking in the skins used to personalise Minecraft games, and a number of iOS apps were compromised last year for the first time.
Meanwhile, the rise in cryptocurrencies like bitcoin has led to a surge in malware harnessing a device’s processing power, enabling an offsite individual to mine currency through a global network of slave devices.
A dozen global crypto mining attacks were reported in the first eight weeks of 2018 alone.
The more things change…
Before smartphones and tablets captured everyone’s imagination, the humble desktop PC represented most people’s link with the internet.
As such, most Noughties malware was aimed at exploiting vulnerabilities in the Windows operating system that dominated the global PC market.
And while the Linux-based Android mobile OS has its own problems – as indeed does Apple’s iOS variant – Windows devices remain the focus for many cybercriminals.
While we would recommend antivirus software on any computer, tablet or smartphone, it’s especially important for PCs.
But where do you start in choosing an antivirus program, given the fluid nature of online threats?
Free or paid?
The first consideration to make is whether or not you’re willing to pay for antivirus protection.
Even though worldwide cybersecurity spending is tipped to reach $96 billion this year, some of the most highly-regarded software packages are completely free.
Companies offer these packages as entry-level platforms, encouraging (and occasionally tricking) users into upgrading to paid platforms with superior functionality.
Free services usually lack the technical support associated with paid platforms, and they rarely include advanced features like firewalls and parental controls.
You may also have to put up with advertising, bundled software or web browser plugins.
Even so, if your only concern is keeping malware off a PC, free antivirus packages are worth considering.
It’s often worth installing software from a company who also offer paid alternatives, so you can easily upgrade to a premium version in future.
Free software generally shares the same threats database and detection engines as its paid cousins – the best of both worlds from a consumer perspective.
Single device or wider network?
Some antivirus packages provide broader protection than simply guarding a solitary PC against threats.
ESET Internet Security will spot neighbours stealing your WiFi bandwidth, and it’ll display messages on a laptop screen if the device has been stolen so you can talk directly to the thief.
BullGuard Premium Protection scans the internet for leaked personal data, and it can even supervise what the kids are up to on their smartphones and tablets.
Kaspersky Total Security will identify unused applications to safely uninstall, while Trend Micro monitors security settings on social media accounts.
All these features are useful in their own way. However, they’re examples of antivirus developers seeking ways to add value to paid software, rather than defences against malware.
Essential attributes of antivirus programs
To simplify the process of choosing an antivirus program, look for certain core features above and beyond the nonessential ones listed above.
Any package should be able to scan files for malware either at a set time every day, on system startup, or whenever you request it.
They should be able to update themselves in real time, which helps to counteract zero day attacks – malware released on the day it’s developed, before antivirus companies are able to respond.
Other essential features should include:
- A simple user interface, which clearly explains whether the software needs updating and what’s being monitored
- The ability to recognise potential malware threats, from email attachments to compromised websites or hijacked webcams
- A streamlined footprint that runs without significantly slowing your device. Some antivirus packages are notorious for causing PCs to stutter and freeze
- Automatic scanning of external devices plugged into your computer, such as USB storage devices that may have been compromised by another machine
- Additional protection for sensitive activities like online banking, which are susceptible to threats including eavesdropping and keystroke logging.