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Antivirus is a specialized program that scans, detects and removes malicious software (also called malware) from your computers, laptops, tablets and mobile devices. Malicious software can harm your device, steal personal information or encrypt and delete data. Antivirus protects against malware by constantly monitoring your files and applications for any signs of cyberattacks or suspicious behavior, such as the creation of ransomware.

While the term “antivirus” is commonly used to describe this type of software, it actually protects against far more than just viruses. The more general term, malware, encompasses any malicious code intended to damage or hijack a system for illegal gain, and may include self-replicating viruses as well as worms, trojan horses and spyware.

There are several methods antivirus software uses to identify malware, including signature-based detection and heuristics. The former compares the code of a suspicious file to a database of known virus and malware kinds, while the latter looks for patterns of behavior that typically indicate harmful intent.

The effectiveness of antivirus programs depends on how quickly the antivirus vendor updates its database. New viruses and other malware types are constantly being created by adversaries, so it’s critical that antivirus software is up-to-date to keep pace with these threats.

Many antivirus vendors offer both free and paid versions of their software. The free programs tend to have less advanced features and a higher risk of false positives, while the paid versions often come with a subscription that includes regular virus definition updates. Choosing an antivirus product really comes down to your needs, how many devices you have and your budget.