How Antivirus Software Works

To combat the continuously evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats, antivirus software has been changing and expanding its scope to include a host of different tactics and strategies for protecting your computers, networks, and smart devices. In fact, antivirus software must now protect against not just viruses, but also malware, ransomware, phishing, spam, hacking, spyware and more. To accomplish this, today’s antivirus software use several methods to protect devices and data. Here is a brief look at how antivirus software works today:

Behavioral Detection 

A relative newcomer to the cornucopia of virus detection techniques, behavioral detection differs from traditional methods in that instead of looking at what a piece of software is, it looks at what it does. For example, behavioral detection methods will compare an operating system’s functions to those of another program being executed on the computer. Any atypical behaviors identified are indicative of a virus or malware, so the program with the atypical behaviors will be quarantined and deleted by the antivirus. The behavioral-based approach can even identify previously unseen malware and look at an application’s potential to perform harmful functions.

Data Mining 

The data mining method is another newcomer to the antivirus scene. Data mining is a way of analyzing information and making predictions based on the identification of patterns in large datasets. The datasets are used to determine if a file behavior is malicious or benign.

Heuristic Detection

In contrast to signature-based detection of viruses, which looks for the specific digital code of a virus, the heuristic method doesn’t look for an exact signature match or digital code to detect new malware. Rather, heuristic-based detection examines files for suspicious commands or instructions. In other words, it identifies already known methods of virus programming; it does not look for specifically known viruses. When these previously known methods of virus programming are found in a file, the file is quarantined and deleted. While very effective, heuristic detection is more susceptible to false positives. 

Machine Learning 

The machine learning method is essentially an artificial intelligence solution that uses its understanding of malicious or benign programs to analyze an application’s code and determine whether that software is harmful.

Signature-based Detection

Computer viruses have signatures or a digital code, which are made up of a string of characters or numbers. Signature-based detection works by looking for these signatures and then quarantining and deleting them when they’re identified. The signature-based method is useful for growing a signature database that can be used to scan for threats. However, because the signature-based detection relies on known signatures to identify malware, it is not effective in identifying new, previously unknown threats.


There are many different detection methods used in antivirus software, but no single one can detect all possible computer viruses and malware on its own. For this reason, today’s antivirus software implements many different methods, which significantly increases their ability to detect and neutralize threats.