What it is: Anti-virus software is meant to protect a computer, but often causes more problems as a result.
In the old days, PCs were completely unprotected. When the first viruses appeared, they could easily infect practically any PC available. That’s when companies started creating anti-virus programs that could detect and remove viruses.
For the most part, anti-virus programs worked although some were far more effective than others. The biggest problem anti-virus programs faced were false positives and false negatives. A false positive meant that an anti-virus program would claim there was an infection when there really wasn’t. A false negative meant that an anti-virus program would claim a PC was safe when it was really infected.
Hackers often made a game of targeting anti-virus programs to show how insecure they could be. Such viruses would often infect anti-virus programs first and modify them so they could hide on a PC undetected while spreading. The ultimate problem with anti-virus programs was that they took up memory and often slowed a computer down a bit in return for constant monitoring and protection.
Yet anti-virus programs kept falling behind hackers because an anti-virus program could only detect and remove known viruses. So hackers simply kept making new viruses. That meant users had to keep anti-virus programs constantly updated for maximum protection. Users often failed to do this, which meant they had a false sense of security.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of anti-virus programs is that they often came with flaws of their own that viruses could exploit. This would be like installing a lock on your door only to find out that lock was defective and made your home less secure instead.
Because anti-virus programs were software, and every software came with bugs and flaws, as anti-virus programs got bigger and more complicated, they also came with more bugs and flaws. Such bugs not only could make a computer less stable, but also more susceptible to infection from viruses due to their own flaws. Eventually anti-virus programs got so large and cumbersome that their drawbacks started to outweigh their advantages. Now it’s gotten to the point where Robert O’Callahan, an engineer at Mozilla, has told users on Windows 8.1 and up to ditch any antivirus (AV) that isn’t Microsoft’s own Windows Defender.
In the Macintosh world, most Macintosh users haven’t needed to install anti-virus programs as religiously as Windows users have although the number of Macintosh malware has been steadily rising. The huge problem with many Macintosh anti-virus programs is that they focus on quantity rather than quality. Read the marketing blurb about most Macintosh anti-virus programs and they’ll claim they can detect thousands of viruses. However, if you examine the actual program, you’ll see that most Macintosh anti-virus programs detect Windows viruses (so you don’t spread them to Windows computers) and a whole host of much older Macintosh viruses that can only infect older Macintosh computers such as those running HyperCard.
In other words, most Macintosh anti-virus programs are relatively useless, gobbling up memory and processing time and protecting you from non-existent threats. There’s still a threat of Macintosh viruses, but the threat is so minimal that it’s like buying flood insurance for a typical home. Just as a flood could hit a home not in a flood area, so could a virus infect a Macintosh, but the probability is fairly low.
Ultimately the decision is to use an anti-virus program or not. With a Windows PC, use Microsoft’s free Windows Defender program, or any other free anti-virus program. Protection shouldn’t cost you a thing in either money or time. With a Macintosh, you have the luxury of not using an anti-virus program at all. Just look at any Macintosh in an Apple Store that’s completely open to the Internet. If viruses were such a threat, you would expect all those Macintosh computers to be using anti-virus programs, but they aren’t. With a Macintosh, an anti-virus program is an option.
The biggest threat to your computer is never malware but your own behavior. Most malware won’t infect your computer without your cooperation, such as an enticing e-mail trying to trick you into opening a file attachment. As long as you understand safe computing practices, you’ll protect your computer far more than relying completely on an anti-virus program.
In the end, you are the best security for your computer, for better or worse.