What exactly is antivirus software?


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What is antivirus software?

A laptop and a phone protected by antivirus software

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This activity explains what antivirus software is and how it protects your devices. You’ll discover the main things it can protect against, and how it works.

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What does antivirus software protect against?

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that the internet can spread malicious software through links, emails, and even websites. Malicious software is a computer program designed to harm your device or access your personal information. Luckily, antivirus software can help protect against malicious programs.

A virus coming out of an envelope
A hacker hovering over a laptop

Main types of malicious software

Malicious software can take several different forms:

  • Viruses ruin your computer by deleting your files and messing up your operating system.
  • Malware is like a virus, but it might also try to steal personal details or trick you into installing a virus.
  • Spyware sits on your computer and records what you are doing. It is used to steal passwords and banking details.
  • Ransomware locks your computer and displays a message saying you must send money to get a password to unlock your computer.

Vigilance is a good defence

Many kinds of malicious software can be avoided by being vigilant against suspicious links, attachments or web sites. Your device can further protect you against malicious software by using an antivirus program.

An antivirus shield

eSafety tip

To help keep your information private, you should:

  • Practise safe online behaviours to avoid many threats
  • Avoid visiting sites that ask for personal information if you are using public Wi-Fi
  • Not open any attachment, link, email, or text message from a sender whom you don’t recognise, as it could allow a virus onto your device.
Antivirus software scanning a computer for threats

What antivirus software does

An antivirus program or suite runs on your device in the background, and checks for malicious software, which it usually calls threats.

Some antivirus software is just for computers, and other products only work on mobile phones and tablets. But there are also options that run on all your devices using a single account.

Antivirus stays up to date

A key feature of antivirus software is that it receives regular updates from its manufacturer, with information about new threats. These could be new viruses, malware, spyware, or even known scam websites.

Antivirus software with an update now icon
Antivirus software detecting a threat and removing it from the device

What happens when a threat is detected

Once installed, antivirus software runs in the background on your device. An icon will display on the edge of the screen to show the antivirus software is operating.

If a threat is detected, the antivirus software will isolate it from the rest of your device’s software, erase it, and report to you that a threat was detected and removed.

This is all done before the malicious software can hurt your device.

Antivirus does other things too

If you choose to pay for an antivirus suite, you may get some or all of the following:

  • A password manager to keep your passwords safe and secure.
  • Regular reports about data breaches and hacks that might involve one of your accounts, and an alert for you to change your password.
  • Automatic webcam security, so no-one can activate your device’s forward-facing camera without your knowledge.
  • Automatic screening of websites and email attachments before you open or load them.
  • A small amount of secure cloud storage.
Antivirus software with a price tag attached to it
A mobile device with free antivirus prtection built in

Your device comes with basic antivirus software

All devices – computers, tablets and mobile phones - come with basic antivirus and security software built in.

However, it can be a good idea to get extra antivirus protection with a free or paid service.

Well done!

This is the end of the What is antivirus software? activity. You’ve learned what antivirus software protects against and how it works on your devices.

Up next, you can learn more about the protection that comes with a new device, in the What antivirus protection comes with my device? activity.

A virus being zapped