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article imageEx-Mozilla employee: 'Don't buy antivirus software'

By James Walker     Jan 30, 2017 in Technology
A former Mozilla employee has spoken out about the dangers of using third-party antivirus software on Windows computers. He claims the programs do not necessarily protect your PC and can house serious vulnerabilities themselves.
Robert O'Callahan expressed his views on antivirus (AV) software packages in a blog post last week. He advised Windows users remove any third-party antivirus providers they may have installed, suggesting Microsoft's free Windows Defender performs better than most big-name brands.
According to O'Callahan, there is "negligible evidence" to suggest that antivirus software offers any overall improvement to your computer's security. However, there are indications it can actually reduce your system's protection. Many providers neglect security best practices when designing their software, building weaknesses into programs designed to keep PCs secure.
Antivirus programs have a tendency to interfere with other apps open on your PC. Some will actively try to inject their own code into running processes in an effort to boost protection. This kind of "feature" generally weakens security though, opening up attack vectors. Malicious software could use the same mechanisms to inject its own code into the processes.
Antivirus software also makes mistakes that can put the user at risk. O'Callahan pointed to scenarios where popular packages blocked security updates to Firefox, preventing users from receiving critical patches for zero-day vulnerabilities.
"At best, there is negligible evidence that major non-[Microsoft] AV products give a net improvement in security," wrote O'Callahan. "More likely, they hurt security significantly; for example, see bugs in AV products listed in Google's Project Zero."
Many of the problems in antivirus software stem from the trust users tend to place in them. Customers tend to believe that security programs are impenetrable and vitally important to a computer's safe operation. Few stop to consider that the antivirus software itself could be a potential risk.
This trust causes problems for other developers. When an antivirus suite interferes with another running program, the users don't blame the security provider. The third-party developer is left responsible for fixing the problem. This means talking to the provider to find out what's going on, wasting development time.
"Users have been fooled into associating AV vendors with security and you don't want AV vendors bad-mouthing your product," said O'Callahan. "AV software is broadly installed and when it breaks your product, you need the cooperation of AV vendors to fix it."
O'Callahan's advice to Windows users may come as a surprise: uninstall your existing antivirus software and use Windows Defender instead. Although Defender doesn't have a great reputation, the version included with modern Windows versions can be adept at keeping your PC secure, without further assistance.
Unlike third-party programs, it doesn't interfere with other software and has a negligible performance impact. Microsoft is working to make it easier to use too, building a new consolidated control panel for the next Windows 10 feature update.
Using Defender could save you money, help you avoid software conflicts and increase your computer's performance. Whether it really is the best option overall remains a point of contention though. On older systems and unsupported Windows versions, continuing to use third-party options is still the safest choice.
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