We hope it’s safe to assume that you’re already running some form of antivirus software on your personal and business computers (and a common vulnerability comes with providing IT support for remote employees), but if you’re like many of our clients, you may not understand how these programs work. We’ve recently gotten a few questions about the backend functionality of antivirus software, so we figured we’d do our best to put together a brief overview of how an antivirus program works to protect your computer.

For starters, antivirus programs are set up to work in the background, so they’re working even when you don’t see them in action. But the burning question most users have is how do antivirus programs know the difference between an approved, harmless application and a malware? The most basic answer to this question is that antivirus software contains a database of harmful signatures that are known bit sequences associated with viruses. Therefore, antivirus software will check code sequences stored on your computer against their master database, and if the signature is found to be associated with a virus, it will quarantine the file and/or remove the particular program from your hard drive.

But it isn’t quite that simple. Because the reality is that bad actors know that this is how antivirus programs work, and so they are always looking to stay one step ahead of the blacklist that prevents their code from running on a computer protected by antivirus software. Commonly, hackers will take a piece of existing virus code and make slight modifications such that it is less easy for software to recognize immediately.

Fortunately, antivirus software programs are also getting more sophisticated. In addition to just checking virus signatures, antivirus programs also check executable files for harmful code. If a match is found in the antivirus database, the program in question is then blocked from running on your computer, thereby preventing infection.

The bottom line, however, is that in order for antivirus software to be most effective, you need to ensure the database is up to date. This is why it is essential to run updates as they become available, because, without updated definition files, your antivirus software may not be able to recognize malicious code before it’s too late.

If you’re unsure if your computers are running up-to-date versions of antivirus software, we encourage you to reach out. At ATB, our team of IT security experts is here to help, and the initial consultation is always free!

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