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Antivirus is the name given to software that aims to protect computers and other devices from malicious programs known as viruses. These are designed to do everything from corrupting your computer and stealing your data to giving criminals access to your personal or business systems. Viruses are just one piece of malware, an umbrella term that includes all types of harmful software, from spyware that monitors your behavior to potentially unwanted programs (PUP) that serve ads or slow your system down, to adware and wormable variants that spread from shared resources like external storage or USB drives.

Anti-virus protects against all these threats by scanning data — web pages, files, software, and applications — as it travels over your network or infected devices’ connections to your computer. It looks for known threats, compares them to an extensive list of existing viruses and malware, and blocks anything that matches or resembles a threat. Since new malware is constantly created, antivirus software has to update its lists frequently, a process called signature detection.

Some antivirus products also use heuristic analysis methods to detect unknown, or as-yet-unknown, threats. These look for specific behavior, such as attempts to change system settings or access shared files, and flag them as suspicious. Look for these technologies in your anti-virus solutions, as they can improve detection rates significantly.