What does antivirus software really do?

We all know that it's a smart idea to have antivirus software on our computers. It's the best and most effective line of cybersecurity when it comes to ensuring that you don't end up downloading or opening nefarious files that could damage your computer or steal crucial information from you.

Ever wondered what antivirus software actually does, though? Of course, you have! On the surface, it sounds like some kind of arcane magic that does its work in the background, leaving you none the wiser. Read on and we'll tell you all about what antivirus software really does, giving you some insight into why it's such a useful tool to have on your PC.

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It protects your files

Simply put, antivirus software is there to protect your files. Each of the following examples are all signs of exactly how antivirus software protects you, but ultimately the answer is the same - it keeps you safe. Think of it as an insurance package for your files or a virtual bodyguard.

Your computer contains a ton of valuable stuff, whether it's your online banking details, shopping accounts, or merely beloved photos. Whatever the file, it's important to you. Antivirus software goes some way to keeping it safe for you.

It constantly scans in the background

At its most basic, antivirus software is always keeping an eye out for you, kind of like a bodyguard for your data. Any time you download a new file or even browse a potentially dubious website, your antivirus software gives it a quick look over to see if it matches any suspicious behavior that the software has been trained to detect.

Antivirus software uses a few different methods to detect suspicious files. Each virus scanner has its own database of known viruses and malware, so the moment it spots one of those files, it gives you a heads up while blocking off the threat.

Many advanced antivirus software tools also detect if a file behaves strangely or acts like a virus, even though it doesn't know for sure that it's the case. This is known as a form of behavior analysis and machine learning with the software detecting so-called zero-day threats before the company even officially knows it's a problem. It's a far more effective solution than relying on only finding known viruses or malware as it's quicker and more prone to spotting new threats before your software has been updated.

Antivirus software allows for manual scanning

While any good antivirus software monitors your files automatically, it's always useful to run an occasional manual scan to confirm that everything is safe. A manual scan can be particularly helpful if you want to scan one specific file you may have downloaded, checking to see if it is as safe as you hope it is.

Manual scans also give you a sense of control, meaning you're always in charge of your PC and its contents.

It removes or blocks malicious code

When an antivirus software tool detects malicious code, it automatically moves it away from danger. That can be a simple matter of stopping you from opening the file, but some antivirus software also moves it to a 'sandbox' environment. That means you can run the file without affecting your system files, effectively testing it out to see if it's safe or not. The latter is particularly useful when your antivirus software uses behavioral analysis to detect an issue rather than known so-called signature files that guarantee you have a virus.

Any extra layer of protection means that the suspicious file is kept away from the rest of the computer, giving you the chance to either delete it or choose to interact with it in some form.

Most antivirus software monitors your network traffic

An increasing number of antivirus software tools monitor your network traffic to see what's coming into your PC as well as what's going out. That's because if you do happen to be infected with malware, it often tries to transmit data out, trying to communicate with remote systems to achieve its usually dastardly goal.

By monitoring network traffic, your antivirus software can stop this ever happening. Even if you do get infected with malware, if your antivirus prevents it from transmitting outwards, it'll reduce the damage caused.

Your privacy is protected

A lot of antivirus software includes extra security features like browser extensions. The browser extension keeps an eye on the websites you're visiting, alerting you of privacy issues and any potentially suspicious files you may encounter. While nefarious tracking cookies are rarely dangerous, they're often a nuisance and mean companies can learn more about you than you want them to know.

With an effective browser extension, you can avoid these issues without having to do anything more than just having your antivirus software installed. It's a great way of feeling extra secure at no extra cost.

Jennifer Allen