You’re just an average consumer, trying to keep your expensive electronics free from malware. And so you, like many before you, decide to pony up and pay for some fancy antivirus software. But this isn’t the ’90s, and it turns out that you might just be being taken for a ride.
Much has changed since the heyday of programs like Norton AntiVirus, and these days installing third-party software on your computer might actually do more harm than good. Figuring out the difference between vital protection and dangerous bloatware is a tricky task, but it’s not one you can afford to ignore.
There are, of course, still plenty of reasons to be concerned about malicious software. For example, on Sept. 18 we learned that hackers piggybacked malware onto a PC-optimizing software known as CCleaner — potentially affecting millions of computers in the process. However, a breach of that sort doesn’t automatically mean you should rush out and buy something like McAfee AntiVirus Plus.
While many antivirus services offer legit tools to defend your PC, chances are you can get decent levels of protection for free. In the case of Windows machines, consumers can turn toward Windows Defender.
Only for high-risk users, who’d probably be better off with Kaspersky or Webroot. If you don’t run random stuff Windows Defender is okay
— SwiftOnSecurity (@SwiftOnSecurity) May 28, 2017
“Windows Defender is malware protection that is included with and built into Windows 8,” the company explains. “This software helps identify and remove viruses, spyware, and other malicious software.”
In fact, according to Microsoft, if you’re using Windows Defender you shouldn’t use other antivirus software. “If you install two different kinds of antivirus software, they might conflict,” notes a product page. “If you want to use antivirus software from another provider, uninstall Windows Defender first.”
Macs, too, offer some form of built-in protection against malware. Notably, macOS includes something called “Gatekeeper” that limits what can and can’t be downloaded.
“Developers can get a unique Developer ID from Apple and use it to digitally sign their apps,” explains an Apple security page. “The Developer ID allows Gatekeeper to block apps created by malware developers and to verify that apps haven’t been tampered with. If an app was developed by an unknown developer — one with no Developer ID — Gatekeeper can keep your Mac safe by blocking the app from being installed.”
Image: LightRocket/Getty Images
Now this is not to say that a computer protected by either Windows Defender or built-in Mac security measures is free from risk. Far from it. Enterprise users, for example, should definitely spend money ensuring their cybersecurity game is on point. However, for noncommercial users the state of affairs is vastly different from earlier times when you pretty much needed paid virus-scanning software in order to safely operate online.
Users looking for extra protection can instead get decent stuff for free, but it’s a tricky proposition.
One such free offer is Kaspersky Free, the makers of which claim “automatically blocks dangerous downloads – and automatically warns you about malicious websites.” That software, which, interestingly, The New York Times reports is in the process of being booted from U.S. government computers over alleged (and denied) ties to the Russian government, has received high scores from security professionals according to PC Magazine. That’s just one example of many.
So why do people still pay for this stuff? Many may feel like they need to, which is a position that benefits the manufacturers of such software. Others find it pre-installed on their computers, and then fork over the cash because they don’t know any better.
That lack of clarity around antivirus software is, perhaps ironically, manifesting these days itself as a security risk. People end up downloading junk software that either intentionally or unintentionally leaves their systems open to attack, all because they didn’t realize that built-in Windows and Mac tools (plus some common sense) will fight most of the battle for them.
And that’s a misconception that antivirus software providers are likely in no rush to clear up. Which, well, is a shame. Because in the end, that might just do us all more harm than good.