What you need to know about security software

What does security software even mean now? It’s such a vast concept that it can cover everything from file scanning to parental controls and everything in between. It pretty much covers everything except someone telling us, "Don’t do that, you’re going to regret it!"

It is the most quickly evolving type of software that we run on our computers, but it hardly gets noticed.

But that’s the purpose of security software: to do its job in the background and to never ask us for anything. It keeps its mouth shut, and we don't end up with a hijacked system.

The software security business is not a tough place to be. There’s a lot of hard work involved, and plenty of beta testing, but it’s very profitable. In 2011, Symantec had $1.75 billion in revenues with profits of $240 million, an 85% increase over the $132 million in the previous year. At the same time, Kaspersky increased their profits by 25%, which made up an estimated 18% of global security software sales.

From the financial perspective, that's a pretty solid place to be.

At first they created antivirus

And it was good enough for the day. It revolved around a file scanner without much in the way of bells and whistles. Everyone remembers his or her first experience with such a product, it wasn’t as good as it is today, and most were resource hogs. They slowed the computer down, and spawned dozens of horror stories (Norton isn't the only guilty party).

Its job was pretty well defined: scan files...and waste resources.

Firewalls were a different story. They were more like a side product, not like they are now. They weren’t integrated into suites, and if they were, they weren’t good. If you wanted the best, you had to get a separate product. A few products were truly popular like ZoneAlarm, Outpost, and Kerio. They did their job and that was it.

Beta testing antivirus products and firewalls roughly six years ago was a very interesting part of my tech life. The underpinnings of such products were clearer, and there was something to learn about what the security business model was like. Companies that are big right now were working doubletime around that period to gain momentum.

Security suites are the new norm

Today, the most popular security products (and the ones that net the most profit) are security suites. They’re basically a bundle of modules: file scanners, parental controls, anti-phishing and spam protections, mail scanners, and web traffic and browser scanners to name just a few. Many more are available and probably even more will come.

They cover so many bases that they're clearly the most complete security products we have ever used. But it also makes them so complex that it’s hard to imagine what else they could possibly do in the future. So one has to raise the question: when is it all too much?

Simplicity sells plenty of products, just look at where Apple has taken that idea. The hardware looks beautiful and simple, and the software provides the ease of use to complete the experience.

Now compare that to the complicated mess that is the modern security suite. It’s not easy to use, and it requires plenty of knowledge to operate at a full potential. My most recently installed security suite presented me with literally tens of notifications and alerts each day. That would have been fine if they were even remotely important, but a notification telling me an update was just completed does nothing for me. I won't name the suite, I'll just say that it’s one of the major ones.

I will have to give ESET a big thumbs up for having the option to disable all notifications that don’t require user interaction. It's sad that it’s just an option, though, and not the default behavior. It makes me think of elderly family members that get easily distracted and confused by almost any notification.

They get confused, and then your phone rings.

Yes, we need it

There’s at least one news article a day that talks about the importance of protection against malware. This is normal, just look at what happened to Apple. Nobody was prepared to face what was coming to them, so 670,000 Macs were infected worldwide. This is bound to get attention and criticism at the same time. It also raises the question on whether Mac users need to follow suit and get at least an antivirus installed.

The first quarter of 2012 saw an alarming increase in malware across all platforms. Windows is usually a given, but Android is new at this.

More than 3000 new threats were found by F-Secure. This is bad news for the innocent people that think they’re safe on their smartphone. Security solutions are provided here as well, as this has an almost untapped potential as now security firms are only just getting started there.

I am an advocate of safety. I find that being prudent is what keeps you truly safe from threats and that it’s the right mindset to have...in the cloud era especially. The fact is that we live in a completely different world today. We’re living "in the cloud," and that takes its toll on security, unless we take action.

But how much of it actually works?

For most people, the security software suites provide superfluous, useless functionality. For example, you don’t have e-mail set up on your computer, but the mail scanner is active in the suite. It has no point in being active in this case. Anti-spam is just an extension to an e-mail client that you have on your computer, and it will do nothing in the scenario above. I advise you to look over every option and see for yourself what’s there.

And keep it simple!

Overdoing your security can have the same effect as not doing anything at all. If you’re the type of person that isn’t confident with the use of some security software suite modules my advice is to disable them. It’s the best thing you could do to insure your day-to-day interaction with the software on your computer is neither complicated nor confusing. Ease of use must come first, as you don’t want to get annoyed or block some functionality by mistake. There are plenty of things to make you suspicious, but if you don’t have in-depth knowledge, it’s best to keep it simple. You have a much better chance of identifying malware by sticking to the essentials: filescanning antivirus and firewall.

If you want to buy a product, my advice to you is to do it only after you have installed a trial (30 day) version. That way, you’re familiar with the product and know whether it suits you or not. Some tests may show differences between them, but if you don’t like the product, it's not going to serve you any better. Aim high, but be prepared to test.

What shouldn’t I do?

Don’t ever mess with settings that you don’t know anything about. You could disable important functionality that’s actually needed. Stick with light "tweaking" only. Ask first, then take action later. The Internet (and indeed, BetaNews) is a wonderful place to be, you can find reviews of the products that you might consider trying, and trying before you buy is a must.

Simple (and free) alternatives

There are plenty of people using Microsoft Security Essentials and I can attest, it just works. There is no complicated setup and no difficult process to set it up later. It installs updates on its own and only notifies when there is a threat. If you don’t want that either, you can just leave it to default and it will take the recommended action. I like its simplicity so much that it’s the only free product that I'd recommend. There are others, probably even better ones, but for me it’s not worth it. It’s also very light on resources and I never feel its effect on performance. I disable archive scanning, and set it up to ask me in case of detection. It’s the most hassle-free security product that I’ve used so far.

HostsMan is one that really gets under the radar, but it blocks unwanted domains (like ad sites, malicious domains and so on) without affecting the good ones. It does so for the entire system which is very useful when you need it.

What if I need more?

If you’re the type of person that has more complex requirements (keeps personal bank accounts on the computer, uses a mail client, wants to keep track of the children’s activities and restrict them) the good news is that there is a product for you. You’re covered in almost any way and you have to be sure that there is a right product for everyone. My advice is to try Kaspersky Pure 2.0 or ESET Smart Security. These are two of the most popular products that also have a low footprint. ESET is easier to work with (you can disable unwanted notifications), but Kaspersky has the most features, there’s even Kaspersky One that offers a complete package with smartphone and tablet security included.

What you must know all the time

Don’t rely on software to protect you from yourself. Learn to improve your habits and try to keep in touch with the newest means of protection. Software is only half the battle, but you might be the other half that can ruin everything.

Nothing happens without you actually doing something, so you’re the one responsible for anything that happens to your computer or smartphone too. Don’t take it the wrong way, but train yourself to spot dangers and you will have a quality user experience. Learning what websites or links to avoid is a basic way to start, and it’s often more effective than any software can offer.

It’s not difficult to do, so why not start now?

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