Staying safe online is becoming much harder to achieve. Not only are threats growing in complexity and frequency, but protection methods are also becoming threat-specific, making it harder to understand the various protections each security tool offer and whether you need them all or not.
Two of the most misunderstood security tools are firewall and antivirus software. Just because they’re often talked about together doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. So what’s the difference between a firewall and an antivirus? How do they work?
What Is Antivirus Software?
Antivirus software has a straightforward job: it’s responsible for scanning your files looking for viruses. While it’s often marketed as antivirus, most antivirus software is actually antimalware since viruses are one type of malware.
Whether online or offline, antivirus is meant to detect and capture all types of malware such as viruses, Trojan Horses, worms, adware, and spyware before they strike. As long as hackers are online looking for a way to sneakily access your device and steal your information, antivirus software serves a crucial role.
It mainly works in the background keeping you safe while you browse the web and download foreign files. But how does it know which files contain malware and which don’t?
How Does it Work?
Most commercial antivirus software aren’t powered by AI. They can’t catch viruses and malware on their own; they need someone to point them out—in most cases, that’s the manufacturer.
Antivirus software works by scanning files, code, and script entering your device. It’s the same whether downloaded from the web or through an external storage unit like a USB stick or CD.
Through the scanning process, it compares each file’s contents to a rich database of already known types of malware. This is why your antivirus always has to be working in the background, constantly scanning your device for hidden and dormant malware.
While this might seem like a one-and-done job and the antivirus only has to scan incoming files instead of your entire hard drive, no antivirus is 100 percent effective. The antivirus vendor has to constantly update its database with the latest viruses and malicious scripts.
When an antivirus repeatedly scans your files, it’s not just to waste hardware resources but to double-check its work and make sure it didn’t miss any hidden viruses that it couldn’t detect before.
Can You Stay Safe Without an Antivirus?
Despite the grand levels of security antivirus software offers, they have their downsides. Antivirus software isn’t privacy-friendly, and most are known to exhaust your CPU.
The only way to stay safe without an antivirus is to practice proper internet hygiene. Stick to only browsing safe websites and only download files from trusted sources.
You should also avoid using open networks, especially without a secure VPN.
What Is a Firewall?
As the name suggests, a firewall is a protective barrier between your device and the outside world, including the internet.
Unlike an antivirus, a firewall doesn’t neutralize malware that’s already on your device. It doesn’t scan your files. It’s a guard that monitors network data flow and checks it for safety before it accesses your device.
There are two types of firewalls: software and hardware. A software firewall is responsible for protecting you from incoming digital attacks. The hardware version prevents others from physically accessing your device—for example, by plugging in a USB stick while your device isn’t active.
Similar to an antivirus, firewalls also work in the background. Although, they allow you some control over the rules to determine which data sources are allowed in and out through the internet.
How Does it Work?
At its simplest, a firewall is a filtration system. It’s like the metal detector you need to go through at the airport. But the scanning location is different. When it comes to how they work, firewalls are, more or less, similar to antivirus software.
While network data is flowing into your device, the firewall scans it in small portions and compares its findings against a database of confirmed threats. The data segment is only allowed access if it passes all tests.
Firewalls also need regular updates. If their security database doesn’t include the latest security threats, malware and malicious scripts might make their way through the wall and into your device. By then, your only hope would be for your antivirus software to detect it before it’s too late.
Its stationary location doesn’t change. But there are multiple ways firewall software can scan and regulate your network flow. They range in security and efficiency, but they all have their beneficial use-cases; these include:
- Proxy Service: This type of firewall protects your device by setting up a mirror version of your device and connects it to the web. Incoming data doesn’t come in direct contact with your device but stays isolated. This is one of the most secure firewall types, but it’s incredibly slow and uses up a lot of resources.
- Packet Filtering: Firewalls that use packet filtering scan data in small increments. Every data packet gets sent through a series of filters. Data packets that are identifies as threats are flagged and blocked, preventing them from accessing your device.
- Circuit-level Gateway: Instead of scanning the data itself, a circuit-level gateway firewall monitors Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) handshakes. Instead of scanning contents of incoming data packets, this firewall ensures the communication is safe and legitimate. It verifies the source instead of the data. While they’re quick and efficient, they need another security technology to prevent leaks.
Can You Stay Safe Without a Firewall?
Firewalls are a protective measure. If you remove them, you need a replacement, even if it’s just more careful internet browsing. Without a firewall, malicious data packets can find their way into your computer.
But when it comes to firewall software, if your device isn’t connected to the internet, it’s safe to say you don’t need one.
Antivirus Software and Firewalls: Do You Need Both?
Antivirus software and firewalls are not interchangeable. They each work independently on securing your device differently and support each other in some cases.
If you’re looking for maximum security, keeping both active and in top condition is your best option.
Have a lot of old tech cluttering up your home? Find out exactly what to do with it in this tech recycling guide!
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