Monday, November 28, 2005

Lesson VII - The Big Guns

Good for you. You invested in anti-virus software because you know how easily computer viruses can invade your system. Then, you carefully studied the system requirements and installation instructions before installing the program on your computer. As a result, you see the anti-virus program icon sitting in your System Tray and feel secure knowing the software runs automatically when you perform such tasks as downloading files from the Internet or copying files from a CD onto your hard drive. So, is that it? Not quite.
To get the most out of your anti-virus software, you need to do more than simply install it and let it go to work, and that’s what we plan to stress throughout this article: Make sure your anti-virus software operates at its fullest potential.
Although software developers design most anti-virus programs to work in the background, and the software then protects your system without requiring you to think about it too much, understanding how these programs work can better help you preserve your valuable data.
If you already have anti-virus software installed on your computer, chances are good you’re using a product from one of the two leaders in the worldwide anti-virus market: Network Associates’ McAfee Security group or the Norton family from Symantec. Of the products these two leaders produce, both have consumer software—namely Norton Anti-virus and McAfee Virus-Scan Home Edition—that detects and removes malware (software written for illegal and/or malicious purposes).
Specifically, experts divide malware into a few categories:
  • Viruses—programs designed to destroy data or halt operation on systems by copying themselves into files and executing when users open those files
  • Worms—programs containing code that replicate themselves until they fill targeted drives and networks, thereby consuming an enormous amount of time and resources
  • Trojan horses—programs that falsely appear to be useful applications, such as games or utilities, but really serve a hidden agenda, such as stealing financial information from systems

There are classifications more specialized than the ones we mention, of course, but these three categories at least give you a general sense about what anti-virus programs have to face.

In simple terms, anti-virus programs work by scanning files for code that identifies malware, and in doing so, these programs rely on one or multiple (typically the latter) identification methods. For one thing, anti-virus programs look for virus signatures (strings of data that identify a virus) and then warn users if they’re about to place a virus on their computer. Anti-virus programs also use heuristic scanning, which places suspect files into a virtual computer running in a protected memory space so the programs can scan for malware-like activity. In addition, anti-virus programs use a method called integrity checking, which records the state your system is in and monitors it for changes.

Both Norton Anti-virus and McAfee Virus-Scan Home Edition use several similar methods for identifying and neutralizing malware. And even though both are highly capable programs, they offer a different set of features. Here’s a look at these two popular software packages and some of the customizations you can make to ensure they’re working as hard as they can.

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