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Still paying for antivirus software? Experts say you probably don't need it


Gifted One
Staff member
Apr 16, 2021
Perched on a rock in Canada
Josh Brunty had spent more than a decade in cybersecurity — first as a digital forensics analyst for the West Virginia State Police, then as someone who taught the subject at Marshall University — when he discovered a shocking secret about his father, Butch.

Butch Brunty was still paying money every year for third-party antivirus protection on his home computer, which his son felt hadn’t been necessary for most people for years.

“He was talking about renewing his antivirus. I said, ‘Are you literally paying for antivirus?’” Brunty said. “I don’t know how he ended up doing it, but he ended up getting connected to Norton, spending, like, $60 a year.”

Brunty’s father, like a lot of other people, hadn’t gotten the message that has become intuitive to many people who work in cybersecurity: There’s just no longer any reason for regular people to pay for antivirus software for their personal devices.

It’s a shift that highlights not only how computer security has evolved in the past decade but also the way many people misunderstand the greatest threats to their computer security.

Antivirus software still centers on its original use: looking for and mitigating software viruses. Because modern computer systems already do that, many programs now offer additional protections, like monitoring the dark web to see whether someone posts customers’ personal information, which experts find to be of little use.

But the greatest threats most users face are no longer from viruses, particularly now that so much personal computing happens over the internet.

Brunty said his dad also paid for a virtual private network, which routes a computer’s internet traffic through a third party. They were once considered vital to prevent nearby hackers from spying on online activity, but security experts now say that thanks to additional built-in security protections in most major browsers, virtual private networks are useful in only a handful of specific scenarios, like streaming video that is restricted in certain countries or getting around government censors like China’s “Great Firewall.”

“He had no understanding of those two technologies, really,” Brunty said. “I think he just felt like if he spent the money, the investment of paying for it was going to protect him from everything.”

Some antivirus programs can offer certain benefits, such as tools that help users avoid email-based phishing campaigns that steal sensitive login credentials. Others can help prevent identity theft.

But most experts agree that the built-in antivirus protections on any major system — a fully updated Windows or Apple computer or an Android phone or iPhone — already protect against viruses just as well as the major programs people can pay for. It’s important, however, for users to keep their systems protected through automatic software updates offered by all major software providers.

It wasn’t always that way. For much of Microsoft’s history, computer experts worried that Windows machines were susceptible to viruses, and there was no firm consensus about what third-party programs people needed to stay safe. 

But Microsoft Defender, the free and automatic antivirus program now built into Windows, has gotten so effective that it’s as good as anything customers can pay for, said Simon Edwards, the founder of SE Labs, a London-based company that compares and tests antivirus programs.

“We test it regularly, and it’s one of the top products we’ve seen. It has improved a lot,” Edwards said. 

That doesn’t mean malicious software isn’t a threat. But newer devices tend to take care of most problems on their own. Hackers are constantly devising new ways to break into operating systems, and companies have to keep updating ways to stop them. Fortunately, the days of cybersecurity engineers’ writing patches for new, safer versions of software and just hoping users will update them is largely over.

“It’s almost impossible these days to not have a fully patched Windows or Mac system, because they pretty much force updates,” Edwards said.