Computer security software

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Keep your computer safe and secure.

No matter your operating system, you need to keep your computer secure. We tested premium and free computer security software to see how well they protect you on the internet. We also give our top tips for staying safe online.

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About security software

Why do you need security software? Without it, the data on your computer could be ripe for the taking by hackers or susceptible to viruses, spyware and spam. Some security software also help protect your computer from email scams and malicious websites, which can attempt to access your personal data.

Do I need one?

When it comes to protecting your computer, we recommend security software. These types of software offer a raft of protection measures in one package. They are also easier to manage than individual programs as they only require one installation, one regular update and one subscription payment for you to remember.

Separate anti-malware (also known as antivirus) programs can offer similar levels of protection, but to achieve this you need to install multiple programs – such as a virus scanner, malware removal tools and a firewall – and keep tabs on multiple accounts. You also need to update each program individually.

We think you should always use security software – either paid or free – to protect your computer while surfing the internet.

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What to look for

If you’re considering security software, these are important features to consider:

  • Pop-up blocking and ad-blocking: This stops pop-up windows from loading. These windows can contain adware or viruses.
  • Cookie-blocking: This stops cookies (small text files containing information) from being allowed into your computer.
  • Content filtering – also known as parental control software: This allows certain websites to be blocked using whitelist, blacklist, or heuristic controls.
  • Phishing protection: Phishing sites are designed to look like legitimate websites, such as banks or online shops, in the hope you will enter your credit card or bank details. Many security programs block sites known to be involved in phishing.
  • WiFi protection: Allows you to manage your wireless security and detect unauthorised access. This feature may only work with certain brands and models of wireless routers.
  • Game mode: Allows playing games or viewing entertainment over the internet while maintaining security. This can activate automatically when launching an online service and does not interrupt or impact the service.
  • Help access: Decide what level of support you need. Most security software have comprehensive help functions, tutorials, and online assistance. But if things go wrong, is email contact enough or would you prefer personal assistance via a helpline? Don’t assume a helpline is free, even if it uses an 0800 or 0508 number. You may have to pay for support and assistance.
  • Scan on install: Ideally, you’ll be installing your software on a virus- and spyware-free computer. If not, look for software that scans your computer before it installs, or one that updates and scans immediately after installation.
  • Remote file check: Allows you to send a copy of a suspected infected file to the software developer’s lab for diagnosis.
  • Scheduled scan: The software can be set to scan specified folders or files at regular times.
  • Archive scan: Downloaded files are often compressed or archived to save space. Archiving hides the properties of the threat the security software looks for. This scan finds them.

The basics

  • Before installing any new security programs, ensure your computer’s operating system and all other software has the latest updates.

  • Microsoft release security patches on the second Tuesday of each month (called Patch Tuesday) and you should get the most recent updates.

  • Most malware gets on to your computer through email attachments sent by unknown people or by clicking on unsafe links. If you don’t know the sender or website, don’t click!

Security for Macs

Though there’s more malware targeting Windows computers, Macs aren’t immune. In 2016, Mac malware infection rates soared 744%, according to McAfee. There are now more than 700,000 malware targeting Macs. We’ve found the macOS operating system (OS) provides almost no protection against malware. macOS also requires an administrator password before allowing changes to the system software. It’s essential to give permission only when you trust the source and know exactly what you’re allowing access.

Ongoing testing

Security software is released annually, but throughout the year manufacturers continually update the virus database to protect your computer from evolving malware. We now test security software to reflect this. While we assess the basic software package at the beginning of the year, including ease of use and system impact, protection is tested over 5 months.

Our macOS security software test differs from our Windows test in that we couldn’t find enough websites targeting Macs with malware so didn’t run web or ransomware tests for Mac software.

Maintaining security

Once you buy security software, there are a few things to do to secure your computer:

  • Follow the set-up steps for antivirus and firewall components – you shouldn’t need to do anything more than OK the list of applications that are allowed to access the internet.
  • Scan your system for spyware, worms and viruses.
  • Switch on any components that aren’t on by default – some products need components activated manually.

On an ongoing basis:

  • Train your anti-spam program by marking messages as junk or legitimate.
  • Scan for viruses and spyware at least once a week – this can usually be scheduled automatically.
  • Approve new programs you install that need internet access through your firewall.
  • Update your security software regularly – this should be automatic but may need to be updated manually.
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System slowdown

Security programs are designed to run constantly, but are notorious for slowing down computer performance. We hear of many consumers loading system-hungry security programs on to older machines, which then grind to a standstill.

Some users get so frustrated, they end up removing the software: that’s money down the drain and it exposes your computer to risk.

Before you buy:

  • Check the software’s minimum system requirements. If your PC only just meets those, look for something else.

  • Some manufacturers offer free downloadable limited-time trial versions. This gives an indication of what effect the software could have on your computer’s performance.

Multiple-device licences

Some security software have licences that let you use them on more than one computer, but what if you want to protect more than just your home computer? Many security programs have licence options that allow you to cover additional computers and other computing devices (such as smartphones and tablet computers). These “multiple-device” licences are often pricier but can protect a range of operating systems and devices (iOS, Android, Windows and Apple OS X).

What's a firewall?

A firewall prevents unauthorised access to your computer from the internet, such as a malicious program or hacker trying to steal your personal details.

A firewall stops this by monitoring data going into and coming from your computer and filtering out malicious connections. These connections can be attempts to take your data, gain control of your computer or to initiate downloading a virus.

Top security tips

  • Update regularly: threats are continually evolving. Set your operating system and security software to update automatically.

  • Free programs can be laced with viruses and spyware. Download only from well-known and reputable sites.

  • Don’t click links from emails, Twitter, Facebook or any other source unless you’re certain of where they came from. This is especially so for “phishing” scams that pretend to be from banks or other organisations. It’s not rude to ask the sender where the link goes if you’re not sure.

  • Hovering over a link with your mouse will usually reveal (in the bottom left corner of your browser) exactly where the link goes.

Online banking tips

  • Your bank will never send you an email that links to its website. Always access your bank’s website by following an existing bookmark, by typing in its web address or using its official app.

  • Only install banking apps from the app store. Your bank’s website should direct you there.

  • Check the site is secured. This will be shown by a padlock icon in the URL address bar or the URL starts with “https”.

  • Change your password regularly.

  • Make sure none of your online passwords are the same (for example, your online banking password shouldn’t be the same as your email password).

  • Always use “strong” passwords that include lower case and upper case letters as well as numbers.

  • Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) if provided by the bank. The most common form of 2FA sends you a text message when you log into its site.

  • Never use online banking when connected to public WiFi, unless you’re using a VPN.

  • Regularly monitor your account for unusual activity.

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Malicious apps

Some online apps, such as those on Facebook, require accessing your account to work and some malicious apps can be used to “hack” your account (“hack” in this sense simply means to “take over”).

Our advice in examples of hacking, such as the 2013 Xtra email incident, is to check Facebook, Twitter and even your browser extensions for applications that have been added. Remove any you don’t use or you think are suspicious. Options for this can be found under “settings” in most cases.

Technical terms

Here’s some security terminology you may come across:

Software that delivers advertisements on your computer.

This prevents your computer sending data to other websites when it detects you’re using internet banking.

Affects the Master Boot Record of a hard disc, where information about the drive is stored (when you boot from the infected disc, the virus loads before the operating system does).

Short for bot network, also known as a "zombie army", it’s a collection of infected internet-connected computers running unauthorised automated software (called robots or bots) that can distribute spam and viruses and launch attacks on computers or networks.

A software program and/or hardware device that limits outside network access to a computer by blocking or restricting entrances (ports) to your computer.

A generic term for unwanted software that secretly executes unwanted actions.

Constant monitoring of a computer’s memory and file system that activates automatically and scans any file (as it’s opened, closed or moved) to detect virus activity before it can infect the system.

Scanning of selected files as required by a user.

Attempts to lure users to reveal credit card details, account passwords and personal information by pretending to be an email from a trusted financial institution or service.

A virtual opening into your computer through which information can pass in and out. Used for communicating over the internet. Port can also refer to a physical connection point for attaching devices.

The isolation of files suspected to contain a virus, so they can’t be opened or activated.

Ransomware is a particularly nasty type of malware that locks the data on your computer using encryption. It then displays a ransom message asking for payment to release your data. The reality is even if you pay the ransom, your data are unlikely to be released. Regular backups are the best means of recovery as you can roll back your data to before they were encrypted. However, security software is still needed to remove ransomware and protect your computer from further attacks.

Programs that conceal malicious code’s access to files, folders and registry keys (they also make programs, system services, drivers and network connections invisible to the user).

Unsolicited (junk) email distributed on a large scale and often part of a scam.

Software that secretly gathers information about a user from a computer.

A malicious program hidden in a benign application. Often used by hackers to enable access to the victim’s computer.

A software program, script, or macro designed to infect, destroy, modify, or cause other problems with a computer or software program.

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