As much as we all dread infecting our computers with a virus or downloading malware on our smartphones, we’ve likely all asked ourselves at some point: do I really need antivirus software? We all know that regularly scanning for spyware and malware is a great way to speed up a sluggish computer. But how likely is it that you’ll end up with spyware, ransomware, a virus, a hijacked browser, pervasive pop-ups, or other malware? And is the risk high enough to make it worth buying and running antivirus software? The answer you’ll get depends on whom you ask.
J.D. Biersdorfer reports for The New York Times that it’s a good idea to use antivirus software, and keep it up to date, to protect yourself against threats like ransomware, a kind of malware that’s becoming more prevalent on both PC and Mac. (He also notes that it’s a good idea to take precautions like avoiding opening unsolicited file attachments from known or unknown senders.) And despite the protections built into a Mac’s operating system, he also recommends checking out antivirus apps in the Mac App Store, and perhaps opting for free tools that can catch adware and malware.
Simon Sage reports for Windows Central that the security solutions built into Windows are capable of stopping many of the threats that the average user encounters. But many people are growing more confident that they’re visiting reputable sites and don’t need to worry about viruses. So they’re less and less willing to run an antivirus program in the background and shell out annual subscription fees, even as malware is becoming more common. Sage advises that “any free, reputable, readily available antivirus program will catch more than you’ll ever be able to, even if you steer clear of shady sites and software.”
CNET’s Rick Broida, on the other hand, writes that he doesn’t use a third-party antivirus program, and thinks that many people who end up with malware on their computers are “allowing it to happen, albeit unknowingly.” The main culprits may be unsafe links found in phishing emails and spyware-infested downloads masquerading as download buttons on software sites. In Broida’s assessment, built-in utilities that offer a baseline level of protection are enough if you “look before you click” and “steer clear of splashy ‘Download’ buttons.”
Robert McMillan reports for Wired that a “significant proportion” of security experts don’t use antivirus programs. The idea is that pros are vigilant enough to avoid the situations that would get their machines infected — and they also know that criminals often test their attacks against popular antivirus programs so that they can evade detection. Antivirus is still a good first line of defense if you (or someone you share a computer or network with) is in the habit of clicking suspicious attachments or visiting untrustworthy websites. But even an expensive antivirus program won’t catch everything.
So you may be wondering, what’s the upshot of all these differences of opinion? Do I need to run antivirus software or not? Is it worth paying for an antivirus program? Perhaps the simplest way forward is to make a point of using a reputable antivirus program, one that won’t significantly slow down your computer or cost a fortune each year. But simultaneously and just as importantly, you also need to realize that common sense is just as important in protecting your machine as running a scan regularly.
It’s also important to learn to recognize spam when you see it. Even if you use a mail app, like Gmail, which does a good job of diverting most spam from your inbox, a stray spam message will make its way through eventually. Always be on the alert for phishing messages. Another good way to avoid malware, whether or not you’re running an antivirus program, is to avoid downloading pirated music and movies. And even when you’re downloading legitimate media or software, ensure that you aren’t agreeing to download an additional program that will, at best, annoy you and at worst, infect your computer with malware.
Regardless of how secure you think you are, you should always make backups of your data and documents, and store them both locally and in the cloud. Whether or not you decide to run an antivirus program, you should use a modern browser that incorporates robust security protections (since the internet is where you’ll pick up most kinds of malware). Most browsers will warn you about unsafe sites before letting you navigate to one.
Additionally, you can download plugins and extensions to vet search results, keep you from clicking on unsafe links, and warn you before you download something that’s likely to infect your computer. Some adblockers will take on those functions, plus prevent invasive ads from detracting from your browsing experience. In a similar vein, using a modern email platform will provide a measure of protection against the kinds of malware that spread via phishing scams or infected message attachments.
You should also know that even the tamest browsing habits don’t exempt you from taking basic security precautions with your computer. Legitimate websites can be compromised, results of an innocent search can lead you to a dangerous site, and you can easily install malware voluntarily by downloading what seems like a legitimate program without doing your research. Running an antivirus program is just one part of protecting your computer (and everything on it), and you should always keep your system updated and stay vigilant about what you’re clicking and installing.