Antivirus notifications, and do I need them bothering me?

It’s highly likely that you will have seen occasional – or regular – ‘pop-ups’ (small notification windows in the corner of your screen) reporting that a threat has been found on your computer, that there are issues affecting its performance, your valuable files are not backed up, or you’re not using a VPN (a what?!). The difficulty is determining what’s important and which can be ignored…

Threat detection warnings and exhortations to update (as opposed to upgrade *) your antivirus application are important and should be taken seriously, however many pop-ups can be deceiving.

The most common are 1. claims that your computer is running slow; and 2. your software or drivers are not up-to-date. Many antivirus application vendors offer add-on features or additional products such as ‘clean-up’ tools, ‘updaters’, and back-up and VPN services. Although they would – not unreasonably – claim that the ‘problems’ these tools aim to address have security implications, I’d argue that they are not essentially security issues (ie. virus and malware protection), and, whilst they aren’t malicious or deliberately harmful, they can have a detrimental effect on your machine.

In our experience, such tools, incautiously employed, can cause issues with hardware, and software (including potential corruption to the operating system). Furthermore, the add-ons can cause a significant degradation in performance (lengthier start-uptimes and additional background processes), all the more frustrating if they’re not fulfilling a genuinely useful purpose.

Keeping your hardware drivers and software up-to-date is a crucial task, and helps to keep your machine running smoothly – but not necessarily best performed through these third parties’ applications.

Fake threats

Be very wary of warnings generated by websites (you’re viewing) suggesting that you have viruses or malware on your machine. This form of pop-up will recommend – quite insistently – that you download and install a malicious ‘security’ application either containing or attached to malware (a ‘trojan’). These can be very convincing, so it’s always advisable that you are highly cautious when reacting to them: if you see one, and are unsure what it may signify, call our team and we will be happy to assist.

Free vs paid for

Any form of virus protection on your computer will help to keep it secure (be that whilst connected to the internet, an internal network, or plugging in a USB drive etc). Microsoft Defender is built-in on Windows machines, so no installation hassles. It’s generally considered a more-than-adequate solution, with sensible default settings and minimal performance impact, but one that’s hamstrung by its less accessible and useful interface.

A free antivirus product from a well-known vendor will give the average home user a more decent level of protection, whilst not costing a penny, though there is a cost in that the vendors feel entitled to ‘encourage’ users to upgrade (to a paid-for version) or to download those extra features via annoying pop-ups. The free products tend to be stripped-back versions of the premium product, offering a basic firewall, but with the same virus protection. The free package we currently (Nov 2021) recommend to our clients is Avast which has received excellent reviews recently. That being said, premium/paid-for security software brings a higher level of protection, with additional features which we would always recommend to our business clients, and more intensive home users.

It’s worth mentioning that installing multiple antivirus applications may seem a good idea, but it’s not. They tend to conflict, with consequences from significant performance degradation to preventing each other from running properly!

Does my Mac need an antivirus application?

The common misconception amongst Apple (iMac, MacBook, Mac Mini etc.) users is that they do not need to install an antivirus application, as they’re inherently able to protect themselves. This, unfortunately, is not the case: Macs are susceptible to the same – types of – threats as Windows machines, and there are many circulating ‘in the wild’. However, as there are far fewer Macs in use worldwide, so far fewer threats are developed (just not sufficiently rewarding economically!). Nonetheless, the same advice still applies to ensure optimum security.