Anti-virus software: Boosting your digital immune system

Photo: flickr/talksrealfast

Photo: flickr/talksrealfast

One of the quickest and easiest things you can to do to protect yourself from digital nasties is to install anti-virus software – not just on your computer, but also on your phone and USB stick. And considering there is excellent anti-virus software out there that’s free, it’s mind-boggling that so many journalists fail to use it. Read the post, follow the recommendations and get protected today!

The dreaded virus, that parasitic creature that can make us miserable with a cold or the flu, is equally unwelcome in our digital life. Just like the biological version, computer viruses replicate themselves, inserting copies of themselves in programs, data files or the boot sector of a hard drive.

The results can be merely annoying or sometimes devastating. Your applications start crashing, programs won’t open, the computer slows to a snail’s pace, random ads pop up, or you might even get the shudder-inducing “blue screen of death” after your operating system crashes, maybe taking your work with it.

a dreaded sight

A dreaded sight

Viruses can get on your system in a variety of ways, including email, malicious webpages or removable media, such as USB drives or external hard drives.

In Cambodia, where I regularly teach journalism students, viruses on USB sticks are a big problem. About 90 percent of the time that I plug a student’s USB drive into my computer, a warning pops up and I have to do a quick bit of disinfecting before opening up anything.

While some viruses are just annoying (they might just hide files without destroying them, for example), others can take control of your computer and bring it over to the dark side without your knowledge, putting it to work attacking others.

Defend yourself!

Since the threats are real, and omnipresent, it’s essential that you have good anti-virus software installed. And not just on your computer, you’ll need to get virus protection on your phone and even a USB stick (more below). And it should scan your system for both viruses and spyware, software that secretly gets information from your computer and can send it to another party. While some programs combine both functions, others keep them separate. Tactical Tech recommends open source applications like Avast and Spybot, which you can run together. There are a lot out there. Here’s information about a few that don’t cost anything and which you can get up and running in under a half hour.

NOTE – Before installing new anti-virus software, you’ll need to uninstall or disable other anti-virus programs you have. They cannot run together since they usually come into conflict. Windows 8 comes with a built-in anti-virus program called Windows Defender, but some people don’t really like it. If you want to install a third-party application on a computer running Windows 8, you’ll have to uninstall/disable Defender. Here’s how to do it.

Avast detects and removes viruses and malware – a program with malicious intent – from your computer. It’s free for non-commercial use but the free copy must be registered so you’ll get the latest program versions and virus definitions. This is important because new viruses are always entering circulation. Here’s a handy guide.

Spybot detects and removes malware, adware and spyware from your computer and it’s also for free. You can upgrade and buy a virus-hunting version for $13.99. Here’s more info on this one.

Screenshot showing numerous downloadsAdblock Plus is an absolute must. A common advertising tactic nowadays is to put up ads with fake “Download” buttons. You might think you are downloading legitimate software, but you are actually downloading anything from advertising junk to malware. You can see this in screenshot to the left. It’s a legitimate site for downloading Avast but notice the two misleading “Free Download” download buttons on the top and on the right. Screenshot showing only one download buttonWith Adblock Plus installed, you can avoid accidentally downloading something nasty – on the right is the same site viewed with Adblock running – the fake download buttons have disappeared. Adblock Plus can also disable tracking of your online activity and browsing history and even remove social media buttons from websites. Those buttons send requests to social network servers which can use that information to create a profile of you. Adblock Plus is also available for Android and iOS.

AVG AntiVirus Free 2014 has good reviews and does a good job cleaning up malware and keeping trackers at bay. It includes deletion file shredder, to make sure the files you’ve deleted are really unreadable. For PCs, Mac, mobile devices (Android, iOS, Windows Phone) and tablets.

Public computer, public menace?

Sometimes you work on computers that aren’t your own, like at an internet café. You really have no way of knowing if the machine is infected with viruses or not and you’re potentially opening yourself up to trouble. Best to take steps to protect yourself.

USB StickThere are portable virus applications that can be run straight from your USB stick or CD. So when you go to an unknown computer, you can plug in and do instant scanning of files or drives to see if malware is lurking. It’s quite likely that some is.

ClamWin Portable for Windows is popular, easy-to-install open source software to put right on your USB, portable hard drive, CD or even iPod, and takes up 35 MB once installed. When I fired it up, it asked if I wanted to download its virus detection database, which I did. Then I was ready to go.

I plugged it into my old Windows laptop and told it to look through all the documents I had on there. It went through almost 2,000 files (including some big PDFs) in under 8 minutes. However, telling it to check my entire (admittedly chock-full) C: drive took hours. But most public computers are probably not as loaded up as mine is. Still, ClamWin found 14 trojans that my other virus protection software had missed.

scan big

The drawback with portable anti-virus programs is you can’t just set them to scan continuously and automatically. You have to choose what drives or files you want to scan and then manually activate the scan/clean. However, it’s got a high detection rate and its virus database is updated regularly, the company says.

Spybot also has a portable option that removes spyware and malware. AVG has got a portable version as well. Comodo Cleaning Essentials is one more you might want to check out. See this list for others, mostly free. Avast used to have one, but it is no longer being updated so shouldn’t be used.

Do Macs really even need virus protection?

Mac users, and I’m one of them, tend to smirk a bit when yet another PC virus hits the masses of Windows users. Macs have been largely immune to viruses up to this point. Some say this has to do with market share since who wants to go to the trouble of creating a virus for a few Apple fans when you can hit so, so many more Windows users?

But Macs are vulnerable as well and as Macs grow in popularity, they’re becoming tempting targets for virus developers. Mac users might want to check out the free anti-virus software from ClamXav, Sophos, or Avira.

What about protection for my phone?

This question is coming up a lot lately and many experts say installing a mobile antivirus app is a good idea. Security firm NQ Mobile stated in a study that security threats from mobile malware are definitely on the rise and nearly 95% of those threats are aimed at Google’s Android platform.

Getting increasingly hit by viruses

Getting increasingly hit by viruses

At the end of last year, Android had a 70 percent share globally, which makes the devices very interesting for people with malicious intent. In total, 32.8 million Android phones were infected with malware in 2012 – a three-fold increase over 2011. Spyware is a particular problem.

Avast Mobile Security and Antivirus is a popular choice. Other options getting good reviews are are 360 Mobile Security and Lookout Security and Antivirus. There are a lot of out there. Many offer anti-theft features as well. Adblock Plus also works for Android and iOS.

Avoiding the bugs

While there are lots of viruses out there, it’s possible to at least reduce your chance of infection. Here are a few tips:

Be careful about email attachments. Avoid opening any attachment received from an unknown source. If you have to, save the attachment first on a folder on your computer, then open the appropriate application that allows you to view it yourself (such as Word or Acrobat). From there, open the attachment.

Make sure your anti-virus software is up to date. Make sure the program is set to update itself with the latest virus descriptions or tell it to do so frequently. New evil stuff comes up all the time.

Be careful with removable media. It’s best to be wary of those CDs, DVDs and USB sticks you connect to your computer. I always scan USB sticks before opening anything on them. It’s also a good idea to disable your operating system’s “AutoPlay” feature, which can be used to infect your computer.

Use free and open source software (FOSS). Switching to FOSS protects you since it’s often more secure and virus writers are less likely to target it.

Written by Kyle James, edited by Kate Hairsine

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