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Microsoft threw its hat in the anti-virus arena in 2009 with Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), a tool that runs on Windows XP, 7 and 8. The move received early praise, as it seemed strange that the company had gone so long without providing even the most basic anti-virus protection, and early tests showed MSE to be nearly as effective as paid competitors.
The honeymoon didn’t last, however. More recent tests have shown that MSE doesn’t provide the features users should look for in an effective anti-virus. Here’s where it falls short – and what you should look for in a replacement.
In my article about security myths I dispelled the notion that all antivirus apps are the same. There is, in fact, a huge difference between the best and worst, and an antivirus’ ability to detect and quarantine threats remains its most important trait.
Early versions of MSE scored well in independent tests, but the high marks didn’t last. The latest AV-Test results found Microsoft’s suite to be the least effective, as it blocked only 93% of known threats and 71% of zero-day attacks.
Those numbers might seem okay – until you look at the competitors. Avast free antivirus, for example, blocked 100% of known threats and 98% of zero-day attacks. That means that if you have 100 computers with MSE, and 100 with Avast, the group running MSE would fall victim to 14 zero-day attacks for every single attack that slips by Avast.
MSE’s failure to keep up with the competition highlights the fact that security is a field that changes constantly. An app that scores very well can slip behind the competition within a year if it’s not kept up to date. This is why you should always consult independent testing organizations like AV-Comparatives before deciding on an antivirus.and
There’s More To An Antivirus Than The Antivirus
Microsoft’s decision to release an antivirus for Windows was the right choice, yet it was also hopelessly out of date. Security has long passed the point where a simple antivirus is sufficient for most users.
There are many other avenues of attack, and some can be used to circumvent an antivirus entirely. Phishing is perhaps the most common. A phishing attack is an attempt to steal sensitive information, like passwords or credit card information, by posing as a legitimate business or authority. The best phishing attacks use URL trickery and expertly re-created websites to fool all but the most attentive users. Any antivirus suite worth selling for more than a few bucks offers anti-phishing tools that can spot suspicious URLs and website, but MSE offers no such feature.
And that’s just one of the many extras a modern antivirus suite can offer. Most also provide a secure file shredder, a firewall that’s easier to use than that built into Windows, a safe payment sandbox, cloud-powered spam detection, and a utility for removing even the most robust threats (like rootkits).
Popularity Is A Problem
Ironically, MSE has fallen victim to the problem it was meant to solve. Windows has always been the most popular target of malware because it’s the most popular operating system. Now that MSE is out, and used by millions of users, it too has become a target.
Whether this is the reason why the software suffers from such low scores in independent tests is hard to say. The idea that malware developers might be taking MSE into account when creating a new Trojan or virus is plausible, but also hard to prove one way or the other.
What’s certain, though, is that developers of rogue antivirus software have used the existence of MSE as cover for numerous fakes. These apps look like MSE, but actually serve as an avenue for the installation of ad-ware. Other fakes prey on unsuspecting users who don’t know the software is free and trick them into paying.
Security giants like Norton and McAfee have also had issues with fakes, but nothing on the scale of MSE. Security through obscurity does not guarantee safety, but malware developers are a lot less likely to develop new threats that specifically target a third-party antivirus like Avira or F-Secure.
Even Microsoft Says You Should Use Something Else
Still not convinced that you should look for a third-party security suite? Then perhaps you’ll take Microsoft’s advice!
Holly Stewart, senior program manager of the Microsoft Malware Protection Center, told Dennis Technology Labs that the company only pursues a “baseline strategy.” In other words, MSE isn’t designed to be good, and is instead developed to head off only the most prevalent attacks. She also said that “the natural progression is that we will always be on the bottom of these [antivirus] tests.” This is allegedly because Microsoft actively shares what it knows about security threats with third-party partners.
A good antivirus stops the vast majority of threats, has features that protect against a wide range of threats, and doesn’t see its effectiveness reduced by fakes or threats specifically designed to circumvent it.
MSE, unfortunately, fails in all three areas. Initial praise for the software has turned to disappointment and it’s now clear that a third-party antivirus remains the best pick even for users who don’t want to pay. While it does provide some protection, there’s no reason to use MSE when other free antiviruses provide better protection, better performance and more features.
Image Credit: Hot Hardware