Antivirus software: Do you really need it? (Feature)
By Jay Dougherty Jul 31, 2010, 3:06 GMT
Washington - Do you wish you could do without antivirus software? There are certainly plenty of good reasons not to like it. After all, antivirus programs invariably slow down your computer, annoy you with false positives or status pop-ups, and of course most of them cost money - often on a recurring, yearly basis. But can you just say no to antivirus software and still stay safe? The short answer is 'yes' - if you adopt some security-savvy computing practices.
--- Know thyself
If you only use commercial software and never install programs you've downloaded from the internet or copied from a friend, then your main sources of concern for contracting a computer virus will come from web sites and e-mail. Common sense - and following the guidelines below - will protect you the rest of the way.
On the other hand, if you're addicted to free downloads, shareware, and 'warez' sites that purport to offer commercial software at no cost, then you have no viable option. You must install antivirus software - and perhaps even use a couple of programs - to make sure you don't fall victim to malicious software or phishing attacks.
Most people, however, run just the few programs that came with their PCs and don't venture into dangerous territory on the web. For them, the guidelines below will provide adequate protection.
--- Web sites
Today's browsers have a lot of security controls built in, and these tend to do a fine job of preventing phishing attacks or the automatic downloading of potentially malicious software. Antivirus tools add little to their already robust protections.
So if you want to be free of antivirus software, be sure to use to latest versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, or Chrome, and keep those browsers up to date through your operating system's automatic update feature. Also, do not disable or alter the default security settings of the major browsers unless you know what you're doing.
If you attempt to access a web site that's known to be harmful, most modern web browsers will warn you before the site is displayed on your screen. If you'd like to feel even more secure when you're surfing, consider installing the free McAfee SiteAdvisor tool (http://www.siteadvisor.com), which adds small site rating icons to your search results and a new browser button and optional search box to your browser. These controls together do a good job of alerting you to a potentially dangerous site before you reach it.
--- Clean e-mail
Most of the generalised warnings you hear about virus-carrying e-mail messages are misleading. You can't get a computer virus merely by receiving an e-mail message. You would have to click on a link within the message that downloads a harmful file onto your PC, or you would have to open or run a malicious file attached to a message.
So don't do either one of those things if you receive an e-mail message from someone you don't know. Combine that common sense approach with the latest patches or updates for your e-mail program of choice, and you should have no use for additional protection offered by a bloated security package.
You can add yet another level of security by configuring your e-mail program so that it displays incoming messages as plain text. Doing so will turn off the display of graphics, which, when clicked, may unleash a virus-carrying file. If you use a traditional e-mail client such as Outlook or Outlook Express, add a good spam-blocking like Cloudmark Desktop (http://bit.ly/7zrVeU) to your toolkit, and chances are very good that any potentially dangerous messages will get routed automatically to your Spam folder, where you will never see it.
--- Periodic scans
Just because you decide to run your PC without antivirus software doesn't mean you shouldn't check for viruses occasionally. You can do so, however, without installing anything if you stop in occasionally at one of the free online virus scanners. Among them are Eset Online Scanner (http://www.eset.com/online-scanner), Avast Online Scanner (http://onlinescan.avast.com), and TrendMicro Online Scanner (http://housecall.trendmicro.com). All of these allow you to initiate a system scan without installing a permanent antivirus package.
--- Giving in
If you don't like the idea of initiating a virus scan from a web sit or you just don't feel comfortable going without antivirus software, you can keep system slowdowns to a minimum and annoyance at bay by opting for one of the security applications that are known to be effective at detecting threats, relatively easy on system resources, and reasonably priced. Titles that meet all of those criteria include Microsoft's Security Essentials (http://www.microsoft.com/security_essentials) - which is free - PCTools' Spyware Doctor with Antivirus =(http://www.pctools.com/spyware-doctor), and Norton Antivirus 2010 (http://www.symantec.com). Each of these will provide the background scanning and on-demand protection that you might need, and each can be configured not to bug you unless absolutely necessary.