Microsoft's free anti-virus OK, not great - East Valley Tribune: Business

Microsoft's free anti-virus OK, not great

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Posted: Saturday, October 3, 2009 4:46 pm | Updated: 1:25 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Ken Colburn:  The need for good protection software against the thousands of malicious software attacks is critical, especially since the cleverness of the attacks is on the rise.

Q. Is Microsoft's new anti-virus tool good enough to get rid of the protection software that I am paying for? - Paul

A. The need for good protection software against the thousands of malicious software attacks (a.k.a. malware) is critical, especially since the cleverness of the attacks is on the rise.

No matter what you install for protection software, your behavior will have the greatest impact on whether you get infected by today's scams and fake alerts. The more active you are on the Internet, the more important it is to have higher levels of malware protection (are you parents with "screenagers" paying attention?).

Fake security alerts are one of the most common ways to fool users into allowing malware to be installed on their computers, and it's natural to assume that only novice users fall for these types of attacks. But the data suggest something quite different. A recent survey of a wide range of computer users by Webroot resulted in some surprising findings:

Advanced users clicked on suspicious messages at a greater rate than less experienced users;

20 percent of respondents strongly trust the first page of search results, which is a common target for fraudulent links;

Nearly one-fifth reported varying levels of financial loss or data loss following infection;

More than half experienced infections consistent with those of fake alert-related malware.

The sophistication of your protection software is critically important no matter how seasoned you are, because authors of malware are constantly figuring out ways to get around protection software, especially those that look for specific lines of code (signature-based detection).

Microsoft's latest attempt to provide protection is called Microsoft Security Essentials (version 1.0), and it replaces their last attempt, called Windows Live OneCare.

While Microsoft's effort to provide free protection is noble and worthy of our recognition, it isn't quite getting top reviews in its first iteration. Let's face it, their track record for this type of software isn't the greatest.

PCMag.com gave it a score of 3 out of 5 and called it an average malware removal tool and a one-dimensional malware blocker.

While the interface is clean and simple to understand, the specific tests conducted by both PCMag.com and independent testing lab AV-Test.org produced results that were less than stellar when it came to detection and removal.

It seems to be on par with other free offerings from companies like AVG and Avast. But it has the same hole in the protection provided by all the free options: detecting malware based on behavior instead of a signature (I wrote in detail about this in my column on free vs. pay anti-virus at http://bit.ly/10PlWV).

At the end of the day, MSE 1.0 is much better than no protection at all, and if you are going to opt for free anti-virus, it seems to be as good as any of the others.

Keep in mind that this is a new technical approach by Microsoft, and it is only version 1.0. So much can change, and improvements could make it substantially better.

It is a quick download and installation process, and I have not seen the slowdown effect that many "Internet protection suites" (we refer to them as "bloatware") can produce.

I have been working with anti-virus programs for almost 20 years and have seen the rise and fall of many programs as they release new versions. No matter how good or bad a product is today, it can become better or worse with the next release.

For instance, many years ago I would have recommended against installing Webroot's protection software. Today, I highly recommend it as a solid pay solution because they listened to feedback and made the necessary improvements.

The lesson here is that the protection software world is a moving target in a constant state of flux. If you want someone to keep you up to speed on the changing landscape, keep reading this column!

Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the "Computer Corner" radio show, which can be heard at noon Saturdays on 92.3 KTAR-FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to evtrib@datadoctors.com.

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