How Does Antivirus Software Work? (2023 Update)

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

How Does Antivirus Software Work? (2023 Update)

How Does Antivirus Software Work?

In today’s digital age, protecting our devices and data has become more crucial than ever. With cyber threats constantly evolving, how can we ensure that our antivirus software is up to the task in 2023?

In this blog post, we’ll explore the inner workings of antivirus software, its evolution, and the latest features that help keep us safe. So buckle up, because we’re about to dive deep into the world of cybersecurity and answer the question: how does antivirus software work?


  • Antivirus detect malware by scanning files on your PC for the unique code (“signature”) of a virus. Any matches will be deleted.
  • They also detect malware by analyzing the behavior of apps on your PC. If any act suspicious, they will be quarantined and analyzed.
  • Modern antivirus include a range of advanced features beyond anti-malware, like a firewall, password manager, VPN and more.

Don’t become a victim of cybercrime. Protect your devices with the best antivirus software and your privacy with the best VPN service.

Understanding Antivirus Software

Antivirus software protects our digital armor, shielding our devices from malicious software that seeks to exploit vulnerabilities and wreak havoc on our systems. But how does antivirus software work?

An antivirus software program primarily focuses on detecting and removing malware, which includes adware, viruses, worms, keyloggers, spyware, ransomware, trojans, and other malicious code that can compromise our security and privacy. Understanding how antivirus software works is crucial for ensuring the best protection for your devices.

The Evolution of Antivirus Software

Antivirus software has come a long way since its inception in the late 1980s. Initially, it relied heavily on signature-based detection, which used virus definitions to identify known malware. However, as cyber threats evolved, so did antivirus programs. They now employ heuristic analysis and behavior-based detection, allowing them to identify and neutralize a broader range of malware threats.

Malware Detection Techniques

Detecting malware is no easy feat, especially with the ever-changing landscape of cyber threats. To ensure our devices remain protected, antivirus software employs a combination of signature-based detection, heuristic analysis, and behavior-based detection to detect malware effectively.

Each of these techniques plays a crucial role in identifying and neutralizing various types of malware, ensuring our digital safety.

Signature-Based Detection

Signature-based detection is the cornerstone of most antivirus software, using virus definitions to recognize and eliminate known malware. This technique involves comparing the “signatures” of viruses and other malicious software to a database of known threats.

While signature-based detection is highly effective against known malware, it requires constant updates to remain effective against emerging threats.

Heuristic Analysis

Heuristic analysis takes a more proactive approach by examining unknown files and comparing them to known malware in search of any similarities. This allows antivirus software to detect new or modified types of malware, even those that haven’t been added to virus definition files.

While heuristic analysis can be more resource-intensive and may generate false positives, it offers a valuable layer of protection against emerging threats.

Behavior-Based Detection

Behavior-based detection adds another layer of security by monitoring the behavior of programs and files on a device. If a program exhibits suspicious activity or attempts to access sensitive data, the antivirus software will flag it and take appropriate action to prevent any potential harm.

This technique is particularly useful in detecting new and unknown malware that may not yet have a known signature.

Removing and Quarantining Malware

Once a potential threat is detected, antivirus software must take action to neutralize it. Depending on the type of malware, this may involve cleaning infected files by removing malicious code or quarantining them to prevent further damage.

The antivirus software may also employ a quarantine process to isolate and remove malicious files, ensuring that they can no longer pose a threat to the system.

Cleaning Infected Files

Cleaning infected files involves removing any malicious code that has infiltrated the file or program, rendering it harmless. This process is crucial for preserving the integrity of the affected files and ensuring that the malware cannot continue to cause damage or compromise the user’s security.

Quarantine Process

The quarantine process is an essential aspect of antivirus software, isolating infected files in a secure area to prevent the infection from spreading to other files or programs. By quarantining malicious files, antivirus software can effectively neutralize the threat and protect the user’s device from further damage.

Antivirus Software Features

Modern antivirus software, including anti-malware software, provides a plethora of features to ensure comprehensive protection against cyber threats. Some of the essential features include real-time scanning, web protection, firewalls, password managers, virtual private networks (VPNs), parental controls, identity theft protection, secure cloud storage, anti-ransomware, and dark web monitoring.

These features not only safeguard our devices from malware, but also provide additional layers of security, such as protecting our online privacy, ensuring secure browsing, and preventing unauthorized access to our sensitive information. By leveraging a combination of these features, antivirus software can deliver a robust and multi-layered defense against the ever-evolving cyber threat landscape.

Real-Time Scanning (Anti-Malware)

Real-time scanning is a vital feature of antivirus software, providing continuous protection against malware threats by monitoring the system for suspicious activity or changes to files. If a potential threat is detected, real-time scanning will block it immediately, preventing it from causing any harm to the system or compromising the user’s security.

Web protection (Anti-Phishing)

Web protection, or anti-phishing, is another critical feature of antivirus software. It helps to detect and prevent phishing attempts by scanning emails and websites for malicious content and warning users before they unknowingly provide sensitive information to cybercriminals.

By employing advanced techniques such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, web protection can effectively identify and block phishing attempts, safeguarding users from potential identity theft and financial loss.


A firewall is an essential component of antivirus software, acting as a barrier between a secure internal network and an untrusted external network, such as the internet. By monitoring and filtering incoming and outgoing network traffic, a firewall ensures that only authorized traffic is allowed to pass through, keeping your system safe from unauthorized access and cyber threats.

Password Manager

Password managers are an indispensable tool for maintaining strong, unique passwords for all of your online accounts. By generating and securely storing complex passwords, password managers eliminate the need to remember multiple login credentials and minimize the risk of unauthorized access to your accounts.

With a password manager, you can enjoy the convenience of easy access to your accounts while maintaining a high level of security.

Virtual private network (VPN)

A virtual private network (VPN) is a valuable addition to antivirus software, providing enhanced security and privacy by encrypting your internet connection and masking your IP address. By routing your traffic through a secure, private network, a VPN allows you to maintain anonymity online, access geo-restricted content, and protect your sensitive information from potential eavesdroppers or hackers.

Parental controls

Parental controls are an essential feature for families, allowing parents to manage and monitor their child’s online activities and ensure a safe browsing experience. With parental controls, parents can set time limits, block inappropriate content, and filter out potentially harmful websites, providing peace of mind and a secure online environment for their children.

Identity theft protection

Identity theft protection is a crucial aspect of antivirus software, monitoring your personal information and alerting you to any suspicious activity that may indicate identity theft. By keeping a close eye on your credit card numbers, bank accounts, and social security numbers, identity theft protection can help you quickly detect and respond to potential threats, minimizing the risk of financial loss and damage to your reputation.

Identity theft protection can be a powerful tool for protecting your personal information and financial security. With the right antivirus software, you can rest assured that your data is safe and secure, and that you will be alerted to any suspicious activity.

Secure cloud storage (cloud backup)

Secure cloud storage, or cloud backup, is an essential feature for safeguarding your valuable data against potential loss or corruption. By automatically backing up your files to an encrypted, remote server, secure cloud storage ensures that your data remains protected and accessible, even in the event of hardware failure or theft.

With cloud backup, you can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing your data is safe and secure, no matter what happens to your device.


Anti-ransomware is a critical feature in antivirus software, designed to protect your system from ransomware attacks that can lock your screen, encrypt your files, or otherwise render your device unusable. By monitoring your system for suspicious activity and taking appropriate action to prevent ransomware from taking control, anti-ransomware software helps to safeguard your data and ensure its continued accessibility.

Ransomware attacks can be devastating, leading to the loss of important data and the inability to access your device. Anti-ransomware software is designed to detect and block these attacks before they can take control of your system, allowing you to keep your data safe and secure.

Dark web monitoring

Dark web monitoring is an additional layer of security provided by some antivirus software, scanning the dark web for stolen or leaked data, such as passwords, credentials, or sensitive personal information. By keeping track of your information on the dark web, dark web monitoring enables you to take action to protect your accounts and identity in the event of a breach, minimizing the potential damage caused by cybercriminals.

Dark web monitoring can be a powerful tool for protecting your data and identity. It can alert you to any suspicious activity, allowing you to take action quickly and minimize the potential damage caused by cybercriminals. Additionally, dark web monitoring can help you stay informed about the latest threats.

Top Antivirus Companies and Their Offerings

As cyber threats continue to evolve, it’s crucial to choose a quality antivirus software that can keep up with the changing landscape. Some of the top antivirus companies in 2023 include Norton, Bitdefender, McAfee, Kaspersky, Panda, and Avira.

Each of these companies offers a range of features and protection levels to suit your needs, ensuring that you can find the right antivirus software for your unique requirements.


Widely regarded as one of the best antivirus software in 2023, Norton offers comprehensive protection for PCs, Macs, and mobile devices. With a user-friendly interface and a wealth of features, including real-time scanning, web protection, firewall, password manager, VPN, parental controls, identity theft protection, secure cloud storage, anti-ransomware, and dark web monitoring, Norton delivers top-notch security to keep your devices safe from cyber threats.

Norton’s advanced security features are designed to protect your data and privacy, while also providing you with the peace of mind that your devices are safe from malicious attacks. With Norton, you can rest assured that your devices are secure.


Bitdefender is another top contender in the antivirus market, offering advanced protection for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android devices. With innovative features like machine learning and behavior protection, Bitdefender consistently earns high ratings from independent testing institutions, making it a reliable choice for safeguarding your devices from cyber threats.


McAfee is a well-known name in antivirus software, providing robust protection against viruses, malware, ransomware, and spyware threats. With a range of features, including real-time scanning, web protection, firewall, password manager, VPN, parental controls, identity theft protection, secure cloud storage, anti-ransomware, and dark web monitoring, McAfee ensures that your devices remain secure in the face of ever-evolving cyber threats.

McAfee’s comprehensive suite of security solutions provides users with the peace of mind that their data and devices are safe from malicious actors. With a range of features and options, McAfee is the perfect choice for those looking for reliable products.


Kaspersky is a reputable antivirus software provider, offering multi-level adaptive endpoint protection, automated threat defense, and system hardening. With an excellent track record in independent testing, Kaspersky provides reliable protection for your devices, ensuring that your data and privacy are safeguarded from potential cyber threats.


Panda is an antivirus software that offers real-time protection for Windows and Android devices, with both free and paid versions available. With a range of features, including real-time scanning, malware detection, web protection, firewall, password manager, VPN, parental controls, identity theft protection, secure cloud storage, anti-ransomware, and dark web monitoring, Panda provides comprehensive protection to keep your devices safe from cyber threats.


Avira is a popular antivirus software that provides security expertise and advanced protection to millions of customers worldwide. With a range of features, including real-time scanning, web protection, firewall, password manager, VPN, parental controls, identity theft protection, secure cloud storage, anti-ransomware, and dark web monitoring, Avira delivers reliable protection to keep your devices safe from cyber threats.

Avira’s comprehensive suite of security tools is designed to protect your devices from the latest threats, while also providing you with the peace of mind that your data is secure.

Choosing the Right Antivirus Software

Selecting the right antivirus software is a crucial decision that depends on your specific needs and budget. It’s essential to consider factors such as the antivirus software cost, the features it offers, and the compatibility with your devices.

By carefully evaluating your options and selecting an antivirus software that meets your requirements, you can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing your devices and data are well-protected.

Protecting Different Devices

Different devices require different types of antivirus software to ensure comprehensive protection. Windows machines, Macs, and mobile devices all have unique security needs, making it essential to choose antivirus software that caters to these requirements.

By selecting a suitable antivirus program for each of your devices, you can ensure that your entire digital ecosystem remains secure and well-protected against the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats, highlighting the fact that you need antivirus.

The Importance of a Multi-Layered Security Approach

In the face of growing cybersecurity threats, a multi-layered security approach is essential to protect against potential breaches and data loss. This approach involves combining antivirus software with other security measures, such as firewalls, VPNs, password managers, and regular software updates.

By implementing a multi-layered security approach, you can effectively safeguard your devices and data from the wide array of cyber threats that exist in today’s digital landscape.


In conclusion, antivirus software is a vital component of our digital lives, providing essential protection against the ever-changing landscape of cyber threats. With a range of features and detection techniques, antivirus software ensures that our devices remain secure and our data stays safe. By choosing the right antivirus software for our needs and employing a multi-layered security approach, we can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing our digital world is well-protected. So stay vigilant and stay secure!

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

How do antivirus detect viruses?

Antivirus programs detect viruses by scanning files on your computer for the unique code, or ‘signature’, of a virus. If an exact match is found, the antivirus software will quarantine or delete the malicious program, preventing it from causing any damage to your device.

Is Windows Defender enough or do I need an antivirus?

Windows Defender is certainly capable of protecting you from a variety of online threats. However, if you’re looking for more comprehensive protection against malicious attacks, you should consider investing in a third-party antivirus solution, like Norton. It will provide you with additional security and peace of mind.

What are the malware detection techniques used by antivirus software?

Antivirus software generally uses three main techniques to detect malware: signature-based detection, heuristic analysis, and behavior-based detection. These techniques allow antivirus software to accurately identify and prevent malicious activities on your device.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most of the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

Security Software

Best Antivirus for Windows 11
Best Antivirus for Mac
Best Antivirus for Android
Best Antivirus for iOS
Best VPN for Windows 11

Cybersecurity articles

Ad Blocker
AES Encryption
Antivirus – How Does it Work
Antivirus – What is it
Antivirus vs Firewall
Antivirus vs Internet Security
API Security
Application Security
Authentication Examples
Biometrics Examples
Certificate Authority (CA)
Cloud Security
Cryptography Examples
Cryptography Types
Cyber Hygiene
Cyber Insurance
Cyber Resilience
Cyber Safety
Cyber Security
Cyber Security Examples
Cyber Security Types
Cyber Threat Intelligence
Dark Web Monitoring
Data Encryption
Data Integrity Examples
Data Loss Prevention (DLP)
Data Privacy
Data Security
Disaster Recovery (DR)
Do Android Phones Need Antivirus
Do Chromebooks Need Antivirus
Do iPhones Need Antivirus
Do Macs Need Antivirus
Does Linux Need Antivirus
Does Windows 10 Need Antivirus
Does Windows 11 Need Antivirus
Email Encryption
Encryption Key
Endpoint Security
False Positives
File Encryption
Firewall – What Does it Do
Firewall Examples
Firewall Types
Heuristic Analysis
How to Clean and Speed up Your PC
HTTPS Examples
Incident Response
Information Security (InfoSec)
Information Security Types
Internet Security
Internet Security Software
Intrusion Detection System (IDS)
Intrusion Detection System Examples
Intrusion Detection System Types
Intrusion Prevention System (IPS)
Intrusion Prevention System Examples
Intrusion Prevention System Types
IoT security
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
Multi-Factor Authentication Examples
Network Security
Network Security Key
Network Security Types
Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW)
Obfuscated Server
Onion over VPN
Parental Controls
Password Examples
Password Manager
Patch Management
Penetration Testing (Pen Testing)
Penetration Testing Types
Proxy Server vs VPN
Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)
Quantum Cryptography
Red Team
Sandbox Environment
Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)
Security Audit
Security Operations Center (SOC)
Security Policy
Security Policy Examples
Software Patching
Software Security
SSL Certificate
SSL Certificate Types
SSL Handshake
Threat Hunting
Threat Intelligence
Threat Modeling
Threat Modeling Examples
Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)
Two-Factor Authentication Examples
Virtual Keyboard
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
VPN Examples
VPN Kill Switch
VPN Protocol
VPN Split Tunneling
VPN Tunnel
VPN Types
Vulnerability Scan
Web Application Firewall (WAF)
White Hat Hacker
Windows Defender
Wireguard vs OpenVPN
Zero Trust Architecture