In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the world became familiar with personal computers and the internet, it also got acquainted with computer viruses. "Computer virus" is a term adopted to describe malicious software that is spread through normal computer use, such as email attachments or web downloads. In the early days of the world wide web, these viruses could spread at an extremely fast rate, unimpeded by antivirus software that is now standard.
"Computer viruses have only grown more complex."
Fortunately, some of the most well-known viruses of the early internet age were almost comical in presentation. Some may remember the infamous "ILOVEYOU" virus that struck millions of computers around the world in May 2000. This virus was spread by tricking users into opening an email attachment that then executed a code that would overwrite random files on the computer's hard drive and then send itself to the user's entire contact list. It is estimated that this simple virus cost businesses around the world billions of dollars in lost time and data as part of the cleanup process.
Why viruses are different now
Today, computer viruses have only grown more complex, and in many cases more harmful. While some malicious software may still be more of an annoyance, like early viruses, many examples now seek to profit from user deception and fraud. Many modern viruses can even run in the background, unbeknownst to users, to collect data or turn the device into a node for illicit transactions. Computer viruses have become so multifaceted that most digital security experts agree that the term itself is outdated - most prefer the word "malware," short for malicious software, as a more accurate umbrella descriptor for any piece of code installed on a device without the user's consent.
As such, many IT professionals also agree that antivirus software is no longer an adequate defense against the litany of malware that internet users risk contracting on a daily basis. As explained in a guide from Wirecutter, name brand antivirus protection hasn't kept pace in a few other ways:
- Traditional antivirus software often requires very deep permissions access to operate, which makes it an attractive target for malware. If a piece of malicious code can exploit a vulnerability in antivirus software (which is known to have happened), it could easily overtake the entire device.
- Performance has also been a recurring complaint against antivirus software, and it's one that persists today. Antivirus programs are known to consume computer resources, like the processor and memory, leaving less room for other programs to run and slowing the entire system down as a result.
- There are many free antivirus applications available, but these tend to be ineffective as well as irresponsible in terms of privacy. That's because most free software collects user data and then sells it, which does not fit some people's definition of security.
If name brand antivirus software isn't adequate, what is? Security experts who spoke to Wirecutter explained for the average user, the best defense may be a combination of built-in security functions and safe web browsing practices. Windows Defender is one popular example, which comes as part of the latest version of Microsoft Windows and is well-regarded by security professionals. Users who prefer Apple's MacOS are also generally better off with that operating system's built-in security functionality. But in either case, users are only protected when they make sure to install regular security updates as soon as they are available. Microsoft and Apple each release periodic updates to their respective security platforms to guard against the latest malware threats as they evolve.
With the most recent operating system updates installed, users who use strong passwords and stay alert for suspicious activity should enjoy a reasonable level of security in their daily online routine.
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