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Antivirus is software that protects computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones against malware threats. These can include computer viruses that corrupt files and cause sluggish performance, spyware that steals personal information, and ransomware that locks devices or demands money to return access. Antivirus programs typically scan for these infections, quarantine them, and remove them from your device. Antivirus can also include additional security features such as a password manager and VPN, which provide extra layers of protection.

The most common way antivirus detects malware is through signature-based detection. Each file has the equivalent of a digital thumbprint, and when security professionals find a new type of malware, they create a “thumbprint” for it and add it to an antivirus database. The antivirus then looks for any files with that same thumbprint and quarantines them. To be effective, antivirus software must regularly update its malware definitions to keep up with the ever-changing threats.

In addition to signature-based detection, many antivirus programs use heuristic and behavior-based detection techniques. Heuristic detection compares incoming files and programs against known malware, looking for similarities in code or tendencies. This can catch malware that hasn’t yet been added to the virus database, but it won’t stop new, zero-day attacks or four-week-old infections.

Besides virus and spyware detection, the best antivirus software programs may also include firewalls that block unauthorized network connections and help safeguard your devices from untrusted websites. A full security suite will combine these capabilities with other protective tools such as a VPN, password manager, and parental controls.