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Antivirus is software designed to prevent, detect and eradicate malware infections on singular computing devices, servers or entire IT systems. The software works by analyzing websites, files and installed programs for malware signatures and identifying and quarantining infections that are detected. It also protects against malicious behavior by monitoring day-to-day program activities and catching anything that is out of the ordinary.

Most antivirus protection is centered around viruses, but many programs now include security against other kinds of malware as well — such as spyware, adware, rootkits and ransomware. Some of the other key functions of antivirus software include the ability to block pop-ups, scan in real-time and protect external devices from malware infections as well.

The detection capabilities of antivirus software vary but typically involve a combination of signature-based, heuristic and cloud analysis. Signature-based detection compares new files and programs against a database of known malicious code. Heuristic analysis uses a more general approach, looking for tendencies and patterns in how programs behave instead of specific code matches. Cloud analysis is a more modern approach that lets a vendor analyze malware on its servers, rather than locally on client systems.

Even the best antivirus programs can occasionally erroneously identify a safe file or program as malware, which results in it getting quarantined or deleted. For this reason, it is important to keep your antivirus software updated on a regular basis. The frequency of these updates will depend on the product you choose.