Is free antivirus software secure enough, or is it better to buy?

 16 Apr 2016 - 15:02

Is free antivirus software secure enough, or is it better to buy?
The trojan Locky infects a personal computer (screenshot multiplied to fill the frame). (file photo / Soeren Stache / dpa)


A piece of malicious software nicknamed Locky has been encrypting personal data and demanding a ransom to unlock files since February.

By Thomas Schoerner

A piece of malicious software nicknamed Locky has been encrypting personal data and demanding a ransom from owners to unlock files again since February, paralysing tens of thousands of computers, including some hospitals.

That has sent off a scramble to tune up anti-virus software and raised the question: are free antivirus programs really secure enough, or is it worth investing in a fee-based programme?

"Free programs only act as guards - that's to say, they provide virus protection only, but no spam protection and no firewall," explains Peter Knaak of German consumer organization Stiftung Warentest.

"A fee-based security suite offers several additional functions alongside virus defence.

Often, there are functions for data protection - for example for cloud computing - for system optimization, and to protect against account theft," explains Andreas Marx of the AV-Test Institute.

Free software by contrast, tends to lack functions you also need like a firewall, browser protection and spam filters.

"Users with free software have to be even more wide-awake when dealing with e-mail attachments, and exercise restraint when browsing," the expert stresses.

In addition, he recommends backing up personal data as often as possible, in case a virus does manage to slip through the defences.

If care is not taken during the installation of free antivirus programmes, it is easy to accidentally install add-ons you may not want like browser toolbars.

Andreas Marx says these serve two purposes: "Firstly, they act as a source of financing for the products, for instance with advertising. Secondly, they do obviously provide browser-protection functions that help you."

If the user calls up a malicious or suspicious website, the toolbars will sound an alarm.

Several browsers already come with basic protection built in.

Internet Explorer uses the SmartScreen Filter, and Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox use the Google Safe Browsing API.

"But the services of antivirus companies are usually more effective," says the antivirus expert. The protection offered by toolbars is limited. "Only the browser on which the toolbar is installed is being protected," Knaak explains.

In a recent test of 17 security programs by Stiftung Warentest, including 3 free programmes and Microsoft's free Windows Defender, paid-for programmes performed significantly better. The free programmes were consistently marked "satisfactory" only.

"Those who want to save money are slightly better protected with the free programmes from AVG, Avira and Avast than they are with Windows' own Defender and Firewall," the test concludes. Tester Peter Knaak recommends AVG AntiVirus Free as the best free option.

But good paid programmes do offer the best protection. The test winner was Bullguard Internet Security 2016 (60 euros per year), which comes with a one-year licence for three computers. For PCs without a network, Knaak recommends Eset for 35 euros.

"It’s cost-effective, good and versatile, offers browser protection and can be used as a recovery tool."

PC Magazin of Germany also tested security programs in January this year. Eset Smart Security 2016 was named the best value for money - especially due to the low number of false alarms. In this test, first place went to Kapersky Total Security Suite 2016 (around 70 euros).

Jan Kaden from PC Magazin is also critical of some suites, which occasionally act like thieves themselves.

"The free Avira Scanner displays advertising windows, McAfee changes the browser home page, Bitdefender sends you emails with broken links." Also unfortunate is the fact that almost all the suites request personal data. There is still room for improvement.