Cybersecurity is a vital issue in today’s digital world. Every day cyber-criminals come up with new ways to get their hands on the private data of individuals and organizations. They use novel computer viruses, ransomware, and malware to execute different types of cyber-attacks which can cause huge losses.
In 2020, the damage to the global economy due to such attacks was estimated at around $1 trillion. Whereas many large organizations have dedicated a lot of resources (such as having cyber-security experts on staff) in dealing with cyberattacks, when it comes to individual smartphone or computer users, antivirus software or anti-malware programs is very common. However, with a wide variety of options, it is difficult to know which protective program is the best to use for a given system.
What is antivirus software?
Antivirus software provides protection to your digital devices (such as computers, smartphones, tablets, etc.) against known, and sometimes unknown, malware. Malware is software designed to either cause damage to your digital files or allow hackers to gain unauthorized access to the data stored in your system.
When active in your system, antivirus software is able to scan the files on your computer, and even the websites you visit on the web. If any potential threat is found during the scan, the antivirus software alerts users to the presence of potential threats and can prevent malware from infecting your system.
The leading antivirus software in the world is developed by companies such as Norton, Bitdefender, McAfee, ESET, Quickheal, Microsoft Defender, Avast, and Kaspersky. Most of these companies offer both the paid and free versions of their antivirus programs.
However, no anti-malware is perfect and every antivirus program requires regular upgrades, because new types of threats and versions of malware are being constantly introduced, and companies have to constantly update their antivirus software to address these threats.
History of virus and antivirus
Mathematician John Von Neumann proposed the theory of self-reproducing automata in 1966, in which he described a cellular automaton with twenty-nine possible states for each cell and where every cell is connected to the cells above, below, and to the sides. He demonstrated that the dynamics exhibited by such a system are similar to the human nervous system and could exhibit biological processes such as self-reproduction and evolution.
To test Neumann’s theory, Bob Thomas, a computer scientist at BBN Technologies, developed Creeper in 1971, which is now considered as the world’s first computer worm. Creeper used the ARPANET network and was able to move across the TENEX operating system-based computers of Digital Equipment Corporation, a leading minicomputer manufacturer at that time.
Ray Tomlinson, a colleague of Bob Thomas', was surprised to see the movement of Creeper through the ARPANET because, at that time, computer programs were known to move across different systems in a network. In response, he developed a new version of Creeper that was able to replicate itself in the network, rather than simply moving through the system. At the same time, Tomlinson also developed Reaper, which is considered the world's first antivirus, that could move across the ARPANET network to detect and remove Creeper.
There are many claims regarding the exact origin of the first general-purpose antivirus program. However, the first recorded use of antivirus software to remove a large-scale computer virus took place in 1987 when Bernd Fix, a german computer security expert successfully created a program to eliminate the Vienna virus from DOS-based IBM systems.
The same year, Andreas Lüning and Kai Figge, programmers and founders of G Data Software company, launched the world’s first antivirus software designed for Atari ST computers. Later in 1987, NOD32 antivirus was also released by Slovakian entrepreneurs Peter Paško and Miroslav Trnka, NOD32 turned out to be a successful product and it also laid the foundation of the renowned antivirus company, ESET.
FlushShot Plus and Anti4us were the first antivirus tools that used heuristic analysis, a special way to detect previously known and unknown computer virus variants. These tools were launched by Ross Greenberg and Erwin Lanting respectively in 1987. Although both of these antivirus programs are no longer used today, the heuristic analysis method used in these two is still employed in many modern-day antivirus software.
1987 was also the year that John McAfee founded McAfee Associates and released their first product, called VirusScan. John McAfee’s own PC was one of the computers infected with the “Brain” virus, which was released in 1986. McAfee had figured out how to remove the virus and developed a way to automate the virus detection and removal process.
Due to the large variety of threats that users face in today’s digital world, a single software is never enough to deliver complete protection. Therefore nowadays, antivirus software also comes in the form of security packages with different tools and applications, to protect your computer and smart devices.
How does antivirus software work?
Computer threats are of various types, ranging from trojan viruses to worms and spyware. They can enter your system through different channels, such as through infected files, apps, emails, downloads, links, etc. Therefore, antivirus software employs different techniques to detect and remove different kinds of system threats.
- Signature Analysis
This is similar to fingerprinting. Each antivirus company maintains a database of known threats, collected from various sources, including files and suspicious websites. These threat signatures are also known as 'virus definitions.' Anti-virus software compares the signatures of suspected threats.
This stored information is further used to design the appropriate response against a threat. So, when a matching malware from the virus definition is detected on a system, an immediate and effective response is generated against it.
- Behavior Monitoring
Antivirus programs keep a check on the data flow between your computer and other devices such as external hard drives, media disks, USB pen drives, etc. They scan all the incoming files to your system and if they find anything suspicious, the antivirus software warns you and offers you the choice to eliminate or discard the threat.
- Heuristic Analysis Method
Many hackers disguise their malicious code so it cannot be detected using signature analysis. In response, antivirus programs also use heuristic analysis techniques to find disguised malware. This is a type of trial-and-error that detects suspicious characteristics in a file and then determines if it contains a threat that matches known malware.
- AI-based Smart Antivirus Technology
Companies such as Microsoft, Avast, and Cylance offer antivirus solutions that use artificial intelligence and machine learning to deal with computer threats. These antivirus programs use complex algorithms to analyze, process, and remember malware. As it collects more information, the software becomes better at detecting previously unknown malware.
Unlike traditional antivirus software, an AI-based antivirus is able to maintain a clear distinction between legitimate and infected files, therefore, there is no need to perform regular system scans and your device works at optimum speed all the time.
However, AI-based anti-malware programs are found to be ineffective against phishing attacks, and there are various complications associated with their virus detection mechanism, although tech companies are working relentlessly to strengthen these next-generation security tools.
- Sandbox Detection
Encrypted files containing malicious software may still avoid signature and heuristic detection. To catch suspicious-seeming software, antivirus programs will often open and run the software in a safe 'sandbox'. This is a secure, isolated space within the antivirus program that allows the antivirus to check whether the encrypted data contains infected files or not.
The difference between malware and virus
Malware is a general term for a computer threat (such as rootkits, trojan, adware, worms, viruses, ransomware, etc), but a virus is a specific type of malware that is able to replicate itself, corrupt, infect or change your data, and spread from one device to another via file transfer, social media links, email attachments, etc.
A virus can lead to the following problems:
- Infected computers or smartphones may function slower than usual, there is a decrease in the processing speed and users find it hard to open certain applications on their devices.
- Some viruses also interfere with any personal information stored on the device, in such cases, passwords and other user details get changed.
- When a virus attacks, frequent pop-ups may start to appear on the screen.
- Some applications may automatically go on and off, and users may find multiple copies of a single file or folder. This results in memory and storage-related issues.
Other kinds of malware and their effects include:
These are unwanted pop-ups and warnings that appear on the desktop screen and lure users into buying fake security software. They often pop up with alarming sounds saying 'Warning!' or ‘Your computer has been infected!’ and then urge users to immediately enter their credit card details to buy antivirus protection and avoid any further damage.
These are self-replicating, stand-alone malicious files that can spread over a network. The difference between a worm and a virus is that the worm does not require any activation from its host. Once created and sent into a system, it can function independently and distribute malicious data all over the network. Morris Worm was the world's first computer worm created in 1988.
Cyber-criminals and hackers use Trojans, or Trojan horse malware to steal your data and gain access to your device. Trojan horse files are generally in the form of freeware software and media files that look legitimate, but when users download these files, unwanted programs are installed in the background without the users’ knowledge. Therefore, it is always recommended to only download freeware programs from official and trustworthy websites.
Once a device is infected with this malware, it takes control of all the data on the user’s infected device, and usually also locks out the users. Hackers then demand a ransom (in the form of digital payment, bitcoin, etc) in return for access to the data. In recent years, many big business organizations have faced ransomware attacks on their systems and lost millions of dollars.
The WannaCry ransomware outbreak of 2017 is one of the biggest cyberattacks in human history. The attack infected 200,000 computers worldwide and affected various small and big businesses in around 150 countries.
Spyware and Adware
Spyware collects user data and identifies any system vulnerabilities to cause future attacks. A special type of spyware that is able to record the keystrokes of users is called the keylogger, a keylogger can collect any sensitive information that a user types in his computer, such as bank details, credit card numbers, digital payment credentials, etc and may cause financial damage. Adware basically involves unwanted advertisements that collect information about the visitors.
Do you need antivirus software?
Modern-day hackers and cybercriminals are more organized and powerful than ever, this is the reason that in the past 10 years, they have been able to launch so many successful cyberattacks on big tech companies.
Cyberattacks in the form of computer viruses and ransomware have affected not only corporates but individuals as well, therefore, user privacy and data protection are some of the major concerns in today’s world.
For now, cyber awareness and antivirus programs are the main shields that users can have against virus attacks from hackers. Although some of the most used present-day operating systems such as Windows and iOS, come with in-built security features, reports reveal that these systems are still not 100% safe.
Antivirus software companies claim that strong antivirus applications are needed and recommended for the maximum safety of your device. Whether you are a regular smartphone user or a software engineer, without an antivirus program, your data is always at the risk of getting compromised. Antivirus offers an additional security layer to your device and minimizes the harm that can be caused due to any cyberattack.
However, on the other side, there are also some drawbacks to use antivirus programs such as cost. Many of the antivirus software slow down your network and processor speed, require frequent updates, and of course, no antivirus offers 100% protection against all cyber threats.
Despite this, in general, users don’t seem to take risks of losing their digital assets, and they chose to go with one or the other antivirus brand to prevent the impact of any potential cyber threat. As a result, the demand for antivirus software is on the rise, and the antivirus market is expected to grow at 10.8% CAGR in the coming years. In the US alone, the antivirus software market is estimated to currently stand at $1.8 billion, with around 45 million people in the country using paid antivirus protection for their devices.
You may or may not need an antivirus program, it is completely a matter of personal preference, but antivirus software is already an established product range in the digital marketplace. Millions of computer and smartphone users trust antivirus products for their safety, therefore in the coming years, anti-malware programs are likely to get more advanced and popular in the cyber world.