Microsoft has been offering virus protection with its operating systems since 1993 with Microsoft Anti-Virus for MS-DOS. The current Microsoft Defender Antivirus was launched in 2005 as Microsoft AntiSpyware.
It’s been a bumpy ride, with the antivirus tool going by different names and sometimes scoring below zero in third-party tests, but with the release of Windows 10, Microsoft Defender Antivirus became a respectable (if not glorious) malware-fighting tool. A constant factor in all these changes – protection from Microsoft has always been free.
Does that change? Many readers were alarmed by the recent announcement of Microsoft Defender for Individuals, which – as Microsoft’s description page makes clear – is only available as part of a paid subscription to the cloud-based office service Microsoft 365. What happened to free?
defender of last resort
When every PC on the internet has antivirus protection, life becomes harder for malware authors. It’s harder for viruses to spread and it’s less lucrative to inject data-stealing Trojans when most potential victims have antivirus protection. Even ransomware makers can’t wrest that much money from victims when protection is universal.
That’s why Microsoft designed Defender to launch on any PC without a third-party antivirus. Almost universal antivirus protection offers a kind of herd immunity.
It works? Well, Microsoft has the numbers to show it does. Representatives have pointed out that the malicious software removal tool you see with almost every Windows update does more than just improve Defender. Unless you opt out, Microsoft will be provided with detailed (but non-personal) information, including your operating system, detected malware, and third-party antivirus programs you may have installed. And studies based on this information show that even unprotected PCs benefit when most of their connections have antivirus installed.
Defender aims to maintain that herd immunity without compromising the user’s choice of third-party antivirus. If you install Bitdefender, Norton, McAfee or any other recognized solution, Defender will pause and silently watch you in the background. But if you remove the protection or (more likely) let it expire, Defender springs back into action. The point is to protect your system in one way or another.
Defender is persistent. To test third-party antivirus utilities without Defender interference, I resort to tweaking the registry, changing Windows service permissions, and editing group policies. Otherwise Defender would delete some of my samples in the time between starting a new test and finishing installing a new antivirus.
The Microsoft Defender for individuals(Opens in a new window) Announcement starts with a bang: “Microsoft Defender. Online security, simplified. Easy-to-use online protection for you, your family, and your devices with the Microsoft Defender app, now available to download with your Microsoft 365 subscription.” It caused readers to panic and contact me. They have always relied on Defender (despite my admonitions to use a better free antivirus product). Will they have to change?
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Other mentions in the announcement don’t make things any clearer. For example: “Get a centralized view to manage and monitor your security posture across the enterprise computers and phones” (emphasis mine). The FAQ answer to “Do I need a Microsoft 365 subscription to use Microsoft Defender?” is a resounding “yes” and the FAQ says “no” to “Is Microsoft Defender built into the Windows operating system?”
Windows users need not worry
In the end there is no actual change to Microsoft Defender Antivirus on Windows. The new Microsoft Defender for Individuals strictly protects non-Windows systems. It offers antivirus protection on macOS and Android (but not iOS) and web protection on Android and iOS (but not macOS). Web protection refers to what Windows users know as the SmartScreen Filter, which I’ve only used to protect Microsoft browsers in the past.
A blog post by Vasu Jakkal(Opens in a new window)Finally, Microsoft’s Corporate VP for Security, Compliance, Identity, and Management, makes it clear that this new offering strictly extends antivirus protection to platforms other than Windows. This does not change the status of Microsoft Defender Antivirus. I should point out that the best antivirus and Android security products for macOS almost certainly do a better job. Few are available for free, but this new cross-platform defender isn’t free either.
So if you rely on Microsoft Defender Antivirus for security, nothing really changes. You can pay to extend protection to other platforms and manage them (and your Windows protection) from one central location. Better still, you can install a third-party cross-platform security suite to take care of all your devices. But if you do nothing, Defender will take care of you, as always.
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