The trial versions of anti-malware software that people typically get with their new PCs and notebooks are just that. Once the software expires, it’s as bad as having no malware protection at all on a system.
As obvious as that might sound to some, a lot of people apparently don’t get it. For the past several months, security researchers at Microsoft have been investigating the correlation between malware infection rates and the quality of the available protection on Windows 8 endpoints.
They discovered that nearly 10% of Windows 8 consumer systems are running expired antivirus software. In fact, the No. 1 reason many Windows 8 users are unprotected is because they let their trial anti-malware software tools expire, according to Microsoft.
Trial anti-malware products can continue to run and block threats they detect even after they expire. But it is a mistake to assume that the software therefore offers at least some level of protection. An expired anti-malware tool does not receive any security updates and may even have some of its features disabled, thereby limiting its ability to detect new threats.
“Running expired antivirus software can give people the impression that it is still protecting them even if it hasn't downloaded updates in a while,” says Tim Rains, director of cybersecurity and cloud strategy at Microsoft.
“However, data from our latest report indicates that running expired antivirus software is nearly as unsafe as having no protection at all,” Rains said in comments emailed to Dark Reading.
The malware infection rates on Windows 8 clients with expired antivirus tools were almost as high as the infection rate in PCs with no protection at all, the Microsoft researchers discovered. In fact, computers running expired AV tools were at four times greater risk of infection compared to a fully protected system.
Consumers appear to be far more prone to the expired antivirus issue than enterprises. Microsoft researchers discovered expired AV tools on just 0.7% of the enterprise computers that reported such data to the company, compared to 9.3% of Windows 8 consumer PCs and notebooks. Similarly, more than 90% of enterprises had antivirus software with real-time automatic updating capabilities, compared to around 83% of consumer systems.
Antivirus products from just two vendors accounted for a vast majority of the expired software on Windows 8 consumer systems. Microsoft did not identify the two vendors in its report but merely noted that one vendor’s product represented 49.3% of expired trial versions, while the other vendor’s products accounted for 38.7% of expired software.
“For these vendors, the existence of so many expired trial versions has a significant impact on their ability to offer protection,” Microsoft added in its latest Security Intelligence Report summarizing the highlights of its security research over the past six months. The report can be downloaded here.
Importantly, consumers who experience malware because of an expired antivirus tool are likely to blame the vendor for producing an inferior product, the report noted.
Microsoft’s finding about the relatively large number of Windows 8 users running expired antivirus tools reflects what appears to be a broader apathy towards paid security antivirus products in general among consumers. Some of it appears to be driven by the growing inability of modern antivirus tools to stop new and emerging threats. Some of it also has to simply do with the availability of free alternatives to paid software.
AV-Comparatives, an independent not-for-profit that tests antivirus products, conducted a worldwide survey earlier this year of over 5,000 users to try and identify the most commonly used security products among home and business users.
The survey found that 39 percent of the security products used by US consumers are free antivirus programs, mainly Avast and Microsoft Security Essentials/Windows Defender.
“The popularity of free programs in the USA is surprising, in that US users can often receive free 'competitive upgrades' by switching to a competing product,” the report noted.
Worldwide, only about 51% actually pay for a security product. Free security tools are a particularly popular option in China and in other parts of Asia, while paid Internet security suites are the most popular in Europe.