Let’s Rethink Antivirus

I don’t run anti-virus software, of any kind, and I haven’t for years. While yes I switched to Mac, contrary to the popular myth, that platform isn’t immune to viruses. So why would I be so gullible as to not run anti-virus software where the chance of getting infected by something lurks even in banner ads?

I know what I’m writing is a bit of heresy but hear me out. There are some things you can do to protect yourself online without having to deal with the expense of running anti-virus software. I say “expense” because you’re paying for using even “free” anti-virus tools by trading system performance. By their nature, Antivirus tools intercept communication be they from your network or computer’s disks; therefore there will always be some measure of system performance loss associated with using them. In my opinion, why bother when there are alternatives that are less invasive and offer excellent security.

Below I’ve compiled a list of the things that I do to keep my computer safe. Now I know correlation is not causation, and I know that just because this has worked for me for many many years doesn’t mean that I won’t do something stupid and get a virus tomorrow. With that said, even if I did contract a virus tomorrow I’m confident in the layered approach that I’ve implemented I could recover with minimal effort and without the aid of an antivirus tool.

Layer #1: Use a Secure Browser

The web browser is your first line of defense when surfing the Internet. Let’s face it, we’ve all clicked a link we shouldn’t have and have been to websites that were, shall we say, less than savory. Running a good web browser is the best move you can make to ensuring that less-than-ideal website doesn’t cause your computer to become laden with nasties.

I choose to run FireFox due to the depth of plugins and extensibility of the platform; however I also like Google Chrome. I refuse to acknowledge IE exists. Some good plugins will enhance your security experience:

  1. Web Of Trust – How do you know if you’re on a good website or not? This plugin will tell you.
  2. Ad Block Plus – Block a source of infection before it can even affect you; plus you’ll see less ads. Double-bonus!
  3. BetterPrivacy – Prevent nefarious Tracking Cookies from even being set.
  4. NoScript – Ensures that only the sites you trust can execute scripts. That means that sites with banner ads (assuming they still display after Ad Block Plus is installed) still can’t run scripts because the ad network itself isn’t trusted, but the site you’re on is!

So, set yourself up with these four and you’ll have covered the vast majority of threat points from the Internet. Oh and remember what I said about running software making your computer run slower? Well with these, they will actually increase your speed! By eliminating ads, blocking calls to unnecessary URLs, eliminating calls to tracking cookies, and preventing non-authorized scripts from running you will actually enjoy a net-faster web surfing experience. Double-double-bonus!

Layer #2: Use Two Browsers with the Secure one as Default

It isn’t good enough to just have a great browser with some even better plugins if it’s not the default. Every browser now offers a way to set it as the default. This will help protect you from things like Phishing attacks in email because clicking a bad link will take you to your secure browser which may: block it entirely, prevent the nefarious scripts from running, or at least alert you to the fact that the URL isn’t trusted.

What I do is use my secure FireFox browser as my primary web surfing browser; however when I need to use a site that I know isn’t happy about my layers of security I simply browse it and only it from Chrome which I leave unadulterated. This multi-layered approach lets me browse with confidence while keeping a pure browser around just in case my bank decides they don’t like my ad blocker.

Layer #3: Keep your OS and Software up to Date

This one should be a “duh” but it is so crucial that it requires reiteration. Running the latest browsers with all the security plug-ins in the world will be meaningless if your OS itself is vulnerable. That means being on a recently modern OS (Sorry XP users) and having your update settings set for nightly updates.

The same goes for software. Make sure you are using the latest versions of applications on your computer, especially if they connect to the Internet. The most critical of these are operating system plug-ins like Adobe Flash, Adobe Air, and Java. Be absolutely sure they are the latest and greatest versions. All three of the aforementioned tools will alert you within a day or two of updates; don’t ever wait to apply them.

Layer #4: Have a “Guest” account for your friends and family.

Your 7 year old niece comes over on the weekends and loves to play on your laptop. All is fine until one day you realize after she’s left that there are 12 new “Search The Internetz With Our ToolBarz” plugins installed and unwanted ads popping up everywhere. You made a crucial mistake; you let someone use your computer logged in as you, bad move. The avoid this problem make a “Guest” user account, it doesn’t even need a password. That way your lovely niece won’t be able to install all those plug-ins without your consent.

And speaking of user accounts …

Layer #5: DO NOT RUN YOUR COMPUTER AS AN ADMINISTRATOR!!!

Chances are, you are reading this blog-post running your computer as an administrator; and if you’re not my hat is off to you. Ask yourself this question, “What am I doing right this moment that requires I be an admin?” The answer to that question is, “absolutely nothing.”

The truth is you do not need to be an administrator to surf the web, check your email, work on your school work, chat with friends on Skype/IM/Facebook/Whatever, edit photos so you can post that selfie to Instagram, or 99% of the other tasks you do on your computer. So why ARE you running your computer as an administrator? Likely because that’s the way it came.

Not running your computer as an admin makes it extremely hard for a virus to infect the operating system as you simply don’t have permission to write to the core of the computer. So your best weapon against infection is to simply not run in a state where your vulnerable. I so strongly believe in this step here are links to How-To guides to help you set this up on your OS;

  1. Windows 8 – You may also want to check out the Family Safety features for even greater control over guest and your own limited account.
  2. Windows 7
  3. Windows Vista – You probably shouldn’t be running this anymore but running as a non-admin is better than nothing.
  4. Windows XP – Yes you should REALLY upgrade but as above, running as a non-admin is better than not.
  5. Mac OS X 10.5 or greater – You should also explore the amazing Parental Controls for even greater security for kids.
  6. Mac OS X 10.4 or lower

Conclusion

While the above isn’t foolproof by any means, it’s a very effective means to secure your computer without the hassle and expense of antivirus software. Yes you can still run antivirus as a Layer #6, there’s nothing wrong with that at all; but if you do the above I am confident that you will enjoy many years of virus free web surfing as I have. Sound off in the comments with any suggestions you have for extending the layers of security without having to run antivirus.

5 Comments

  1. Jane Hertz September 19, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    In the midst of a divorce computer safety isn’t exactly something you think about, but midway through my first year as a single mom I was thrown into the world of viruses. $600 later, I believe I am much wiser, with Norton Anti Virus and then I read your article about running as the administrator. Of course I have fixed this, now. Thank You!

    If I ever set up a “Divorce This” Blog I will include your recommendations, with your permission of course. I think everyone needs plain talk about the dangers of virus ignorance.

    • Blaine September 19, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

      Oh no so sorry to hear about that Jane; but yes it’s tough out there with all of the challenges of keeping your computer clean. I hope you find success with these strategies. Of course, anti-virus software is also just fine to run too and at the end of the day I really do recommend it for people who don’t want to deal with these methods. However, if you implement them my money is on you finding after a few years that you’ve been virus free the whole time.

      Best of luck on your future, and feel free to copy anything from my posting. This is just a retelling of my own experience.

  2. Danielle Cotton September 19, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

    Blaine,
    I found your blog to be extremely interesting! I love reading things that I find useful, and this really is :) I am so guilty of not updating my browser, plugins, etc. I always wait to do it later. I may rethink that now. Your suggestions are really applicable. However, I would probably be the person to still use layer 6, and run my antivirus. :)

    You could maybe add another layer or suggestion of not clicking on links or opening attachments from people/websites you don’t know. That has happened to me a few times when I’ve let others use my computer.

    Thanks for sharing!!

    • Blaine September 20, 2014 at 9:45 am #

      Happy you find it useful! I agree a Layer 6 of running an anti-virus never hurts especially if you don’t mind the hit to performance; but just like I mentioned above to Jane I bet you’ll find after a year the anti-virus just didn’t really do anything once you incorporate these habits.

  3. Karina September 20, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    Hi Blaine,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog about an alternative to antivirus programs. This has been a question of mine since I began to own a personal computer in 2007. My parents were always very worried about computer viruses and they would always buy me norton antivirus which is pretty expensive. Now that I am in graduate school and on my own, I have to be independent financially which I have no problems on doing so, however, it was my turn to protect my new laptop from viruses and it really hurt my pocket. Now that I read your suggestions, I am very excited on trying it out. Thank you for sharing

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