What is antivirus?
Antivirus is cybersecurity software designed to prevent, detect, and remove viruses from computers. Antiviruses monitor programs for unusual behavior, check new files against known malware databases, and quarantine threats before they can cause damage.
You can install an antivirus program on most systems, including computers and handheld devices like phones and tablets.
How does antivirus software work?
While each antivirus protection tool works slightly differently, the core functions are usually the same. Antivirus programs scan for viruses using three core methods:
- Signature-based detection: Antivirus software works by comparing the files and programs it scans with the threat signatures saved in its database. If a file’s signature matches a known threat signature, the antivirus software marks it as malicious. The file can then be quarantined or deleted. Signature-based detection is a good system, but unless the database is constantly updated, it may not be able to catch newer threats.
- Heuristic-based detection: Heuristic-based detection involves analyzing the code within a program and comparing it to a database of known malicious code. This approach means that even if the malware is not saved to a signature database yet, coded components within the software might still be flagged up. Many viruses reuse and build on the code of other malicious programs, so heuristic analysis tools can look for those red flags within files and apps.
- Behavioral analysis: Tools that use behavioral analysis monitor processes and try to detect unusual or malicious behavior. Instead of looking at the components of a program, these antivirus services track the way in which a program behaves and watches for actions (suddenly encrypting other files, for example) that are known Threat Vectors.
What is anti-malware?
Anti-malware is the umbrella term for software designed to protect systems from malware (ransomware, spyware, adware, and other malicious software). Anti-malware software can prevent new malware from being installed on the system (for example, by scanning files while they’re being downloaded) or detect, quarantine, and remove existing malware.
Anti-malware software and antivirus overlap in many ways, and they cannot be defined as being entirely separate. However, as we’ll explain, there are some features that are more likely to be found in anti-malware than in antivirus tools, which helps to create some distinction.
How does anti-malware software work?
Anti-malware works in a similar way to antivirus, identifying and neutralizing cyber threats. However, it has some key features that antivirus programs do not typically offer:
- Broader scope: Anti-malware software usually has a broader scope than antivirus software. It’s designed to detect and remove a wide range of malicious software beyond just viruses, and often includes specialized features like email scanning, additional firewalls, and even password protection. Typically, anti-malware software boosts overall security more than antivirus.
- Multi-layered approach: Anti-malware software typically combines a wide variety of detection methods, combining signature-based, heuristic-based, and behavioral analysis methods. This multi-layered approach enhances its ability to detect both long-standing and emerging threats.
- Zero-day protection: Anti-malware software is often better equipped to handle zero-day threats — malware that exploits vulnerabilities before security experts are aware of the risks. When malware protection focuses on heuristic analysis and behavior monitoring, it is usually more successful in identifying new, undocumented threats.
Differences between anti-malware and antivirus
The terms anti-malware and antivirus are often used interchangeably, but there are some distinctions between them. The main point of difference is the scope of their focus.
Software that is referred to as antivirus is often designed just to stop viruses and known threats targeting your device, while anti-malware tools perform more varied functions. It’s not unusual for anti-malware to include things like password generators, ad blockers, and other extras. Anti-malware also tends to offer more protection against new threats that may not have been added to official databases yet.
That being said, the differences are minimal, and a program that is designed to find and remove malware could be described as both anti-malware and antivirus.
Which one should you choose?
Since anti-malware and antivirus are largely interchangeable as terms, you should focus less on which category of software you’re choosing, and more on the functions that it provides. Look for a cybersecurity tool that scans files for potential malware and improves overall online safety.
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NordVPN encrypts your data and shields your IP address, boosting online privacy and security. It also comes with Threat Protection, a suite of tools that block ads, stop trackers, and scan files for viruses when downloading. NordVPN provides a URL trimmer and a Dark Web Monitor feature, making your online experience safer.