Is "free" antivirus really free? Here’s what you need to know

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Perhaps you’ve heard that security software maker Kaspersky Labs is the latest security vendor to offer “free” endpoint protection software in addition to their paid products.

As a consumer, maybe you’ve considered using a free software application to defend your home computers or mobile devices against malicious code such as computer viruses and ransomware, or you’re using one already. The question is, can you trust it to defend your data or not? We thought it was a good time to do a little digging.

The deal with “free” antivirus

Free antivirus is a classic example of getting what you pay for. It’s true that several security companies offer a free version of their software; but it is not unusual for these free versions to leave out some of the  protection mechanisms you get if you buy their paid versions. For example, free versions generally don’t include valuable tools such as DNA detection, memory scanning and firewall protection. These technologies aren’t just nice to have—they defend against attacks based on flaws in everyday software like Windows or Adobe Flash Player, attempts to steal your identity and the latest ransomware making the rounds.

As ESET researcher David Harley puts it: “While some free AVs are, frankly, worth less than they cost, it is true that in general, free and for-fee versions of AV from the same vendor use the same core engine.”

“Basic free tools don’t have the same range of functionality and features,” continues Harley. “In most cases, the free versions are there as a sort of extended evaluation tool, intended to give you a taste of how well the basic scanner will work on your system. There is some hope, in other words, that you will at some point pay for the commercial version. Why would you do that? Perhaps because you run into a problem where you actually need the support that isn’t available with the free software.” 

As Harley alludes to, some companies offer free malware detection software, but then charge for removing the malware. In addition, free security software may not come with the free support you get with a paid version. Alternatively, the support you get with the free version may be slower, or via email only, at a time when what you’d really like is to get someone on the phone to explain what is going on with your computer. 

Why free isn’t really free

Another basic rule of business is that companies cannot afford to give away valuable products for free. So a good rule of thumb is: If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product. With free antivirus, you could be targeted with annoying ads designed to upsell you to the paid version (as at least one Reddit user recently found out). More worrisome is the issue of data collection—some “free” AVs make their money by selling the data collected from your devices.

We recommend taking a good look at these companies’ privacy policies. How much of your confidential or valuable data might be collected, and who will have access to it, are questions worth investigating before using a free security product.

With ESET products, you have full control over determining what/if any data is sent to ESET. You can specify no data, only statistical data, or statistical data and files. You can even specify that only certain types of attachments are sent to us for analysis of possible malware.

For a deep dive into the typical differences between paid and free programs, as well as the business motivations behind free AV offerings, take a look at this recent study from AV-Comparatives — a highly respected independent antivirus testing agency.

Free security tools from ESET

Online threats are a reality, and dealing with them can be challenging. So, while ESET believes that the best way to deliver protection is through a paid and appropriately licensed product, we do provide a number of free diagnostic and threat removal services to supplement our paid products.These tools may be used to check your computer and assure that it is clean before you install your antivirus solution.

ESET Online Scanner uses a one-time scan to detect and remove malicious threats on a computer.

ESET SysRescue is a malware cleaning tool that runs independent of the operating system from a CD, DVD, or a USB. 

ESET SysInspector scans a computer and captures details such as running processes that help you pinpoint what’s causing a computer slowdown.Business users should also consider that a lot of free security software is not free for commercial use. We’ll address use cases for business in an upcoming blog post.

When it comes to internet security, ESET believes that knowledge is power. We want to make sure you’re educated about internet security so you can make an informed decision. We’ve been protecting people from online threats for 30 years, and we passionately believe that you should be able to enjoy your connected world free of online threats.