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Should you pay for internet security software?

Free antivirus may be enough to protect your PC online

It should be no revelation, but the software companies proclaiming themselves as security guardians of your PC have the same agenda as the people making malware: to make money. See Security Advisor.

Antivirus development was once a noble cause, community help for fellow geeks against the childish pranks of attention-seeking delinquents. But then viruses were developed for profit, and antivirus developers welcomed venture capitalists into their throng, to turn vaccines into self-renewing cash cows.

Do you need antivirus? Or, as it’s now swelled and sold, ‘internet security’? Equally efficacious antivirus can be downloaded for free from some familiar names, notably Microsoft itself with its Security Essentials. Top names in free Windows antivirus haunt the As, like Aardvark services in a telephone directory - AVG Free, Avast and Avira. Other notables include ClamAV and Malwarebytes.

To bolster their revenue stream, commercial antivirus peddlers now bundle super-sized packages with marketable extras - bullet points such as antispyware, firewalls, online backup and parental control. This earns them an extra 10- or 20 quid a year from you. But, in my opinion, most of this is useless tat.

Take firewalls. The personal firewall took off in 2003 when gaping holes in Windows XP allowed the free passage of worms through the network and into any PC. Microsoft responded with a firewall in Service Pack 2, and it’s been on by default since. But it’s not so essential now that Microsoft’s patched its RPC failures. Popular operating systems OS X and Ubuntu have no firewall on by default, and these systems are orders of magnitude safer than Windows.

Antispyware no longer works, so I will no longer pay for it. Last I checked, browser cookies and web beacons were still being employed to spy on my PC use, even with this security theatre installed.

There may still be a case for the other extras bundled with internet security, though. Read our internet security software reviews.

The two biggest threats to any modern operating system are Trojans, let in by naïve users; and zero-day exploits in the OS or its installed programs. Antivirus software might alert you to the former as you click Ok on the install dialog. But unbeknown vulnerabilities usher intrusions straight past your antivirus software. The most common back doors are opened by Adobe Flash and, more seriously in recent days, Oracle Java.

Living without Flash is increasingly easy now that it’s dead in the mobile space. And if you value your computer security, do yourself a favour and remove Java, too. Because whether you stump up the £50-per-year tax the antivirus industry hopes to charge you, or take the free version using the same virus-spotting engine, you must never assume your gatekeeper software will have a clue about gaping holes introduced by browser plug-ins such as Java.

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