Antivirus software shouldn't be this painful

Why do users let security lapse? Maybe because it's too complex a job

October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, a cooperative outreach effort by the Homeland Security Department and the National Cyber Security Alliance to promote online safety and best computing practices among the general public.

The theme for this sixth annual awareness month is “Our Shared Responsibility,” which DHS says is to “reinforce the message that all computer users, not just industry and government, have a responsibility to practice good 'cyber hygiene.' ”

That's all well and good. Practicing good cyber hygiene makes sense, just like washing your hands and covering your mouth while coughing during a flu outbreak. But why is basic endpoint security still so difficult?

The first tip offered by DHS is to “make sure that you have antivirus software and firewalls installed, properly configured, and up-to-date.” Good advice. I give it myself to family and friends who tend to let their subscriptions for security services lapse. But many people still ignore it, and I think the vendors bear a large share of the blame.

According to a survey conducted last year, fewer than half of computer users have the complete holy trinity of IT security: a personal firewall, antivirus and anti-spyware. A large majority of users, 95 percent, had antivirus tools installed. But keeping those tools up-to-date can be a troublesome process. I believe it is this complexity, rather than money, that leads so many users to let antivirus subscriptions lapse.

My wife and I recently renewed the subscription on our home antivirus, and it was an unpleasant experience. We were less than enthusiastic about our current vendor and would gladly have switched to another, but the process of uninstalling the old product was so arduous and iffy that we felt more or less compelled to renew it rather than replace it.

The first problem was that we could not simply renew the subscription. We had to install a completely new engine. The lengthy download process broke down somewhere near the end, and we finally asked the vendor to send us a disk. Installing the new engine from the disk is no doubt a simple and intuitive task for the engineer who created it, but enough key information was obscured or hidden that the process became a trial for a reasonably knowledgeable user.

Once installed, the challenges continued. The new version is a resource hog that does not like our mainstream e-mail client. We ironed out most of those wrinkles but quickly began receiving messages that our signature files were out-of-date. The automatic update was turned on, but it was not updating automatically. We downloaded the updated files manually and queried the company, but before we got any help it mysteriously began automatically updating itself. We still have no idea why.

Antivirus software is — or should be by now — a commodity. Vendors should be competing on ease of use rather than bells and whistles that change with every version. There is no excuse for users still to be frustrated by the vendor experience.

We recently got a new alert from our antivirus provider. There are only 315 days remaining on our one-year subscription, we were warned. Do we want to renew it now?

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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