What are the Differences Between a VPN, a Firewall, and Antivirus Software?
Updated March 4, 2019
Cybersecurity is an increasing concern in our day and age. With the media constantly flooded with reports of malicious malware targeting companies and data leaks compromising user information, it’s understandable that you’d want the best possible defense against e-hostilities.
What do you need to keep your computer and information protected?
For ultimate protection, you should use a VPN, a firewall, and antivirus software.
You might find articles debating the uses and needs prioritizing one over the other, but in truth, all three have quite separate functions and all are necessary if you want to keep your information secure.
To keep things simple, you can think of all three with real-life analogies.
If malicious software is like bacteria or a virus, then a firewall is all the means you take to stop the bacteria before it gets inside you. To avoid colds you wrap up warm. A firewall is like a scarf barring entry to the common cold.
If the bacteria or virus does get inside you though, you’re going to need a different solution. That’s where antivirus software comes in. Antivirus software is like antibiotics. It cleans you (or your computer) from any infections already within.
Then there are VPNs, or virtual private networks. They’re not really stopping your computer getting ill. Instead, they stop your devices from giving your information away. So in this analogy, the VPN is like the lock on your front door and the blinds on your window. It’s the security system that stops criminals stealing things that don’t belong to them.
Before we get too in-depth into this analogy though, why don’t we give more detail on what each thing really does?
A firewall is a piece of hardware or software that monitors the ingoing and outgoing internet traffic on your device. The most typical kind of firewall is the Stateful Inspection Firewall. This type of firewall will block network traffic that it deems to be harmful to your computer. Usually, this will be decided by a set of guidelines on pre-approved state, port, and protocols that the firewall will allow access to. These guidelines can be customized by the user.
Even the most uninitiated computer user might be reaping the rewards of a firewall. Unless you’ve made direct actions to disable it, the vast majority of computers come with a pre-installed firewall that is operating from the get go.
A firewall will block programs from being downloaded onto your computer without your direct approval. Each time you install a new program, the pop-up asking for your approval is the computer’s firewall checking that the download isn’t malicious software downloading without your consent.
When a firewall is working properly, it should be the first defense stopping any malware getting access to your computer. However, if the firewall hasn’t picked up on a dangerous piece of software, and your computer is already infected, that’s when you’re going to need something else, antivirus software.
Antivirus software is, using our previous analogy, like the medicine that you take after you’ve already become infected. A good antivirus should be able to detect and remove all kinds of malicious software, from computer viruses to malware.
Antivirus software relies upon a bank of information on possible malicious activities and behaviors of malware. Keeping this bank up to date is the key for an antivirus to function well. When comparing free and paid antivirus software, it is fundamental to consider how reliable the malware definitions available to the antivirus are. Maintaining an informed, adaptive and current knowledge of cyber threats is how users can differentiate between the values of antivirus systems.
Once an antivirus or antimalware software has detected an infected file, the software will either delete it or quarantine it. If a malicious file is quarantined, it can no longer affect the rest of the computer. The advantage to this is that it allows the user to safely decide whether or not they want to delete the potentially malicious software from their PC.
One of the main dangers of a virus or malware is that they can pass on your data to exterior sources. This is a worry as it can compromise private information such as your bank account details. An antivirus can stop your information being leaked through malware, but how can you stop others from monitoring your internet activity? That’s when you need a VPN.
A VPN provides your computer with a secure connection to the internet without compromising any of the user’s information or data. It does this by passing your connection through a VPN server, often you can choose from many located around the world, as well as encrypting the information you’re sharing with the internet.
This has a few advantages. It allows you to continue to browse the internet without having to actively hide your identifying data as the encryption hides any private information from prying eyes. It also allows you to circumvent geo-restrictions but in place by companies like Netflix. By allowing you to use an IP address a VPN server in another country, you can access content restricted to the country of your choosing.
It’s important to note what a VPN can and can’t do. Although a VPN can be very effective at hiding your personal data through encryption, it can’t stop malware from stealing the same data. If malware finds its way onto your computer, it will be compromised regardless of whether you have a VPN or not.
To be totally safe from the threat of malicious software, you will still need an antivirus program. In addition to the antivirus, firewalls are also incredibly good at stopping malware from ever even reaching your devices.
This is why although it may seem like you’d only need one of the three programs mentioned in the article, having the strong trifecta of a firewall, antivirus software, and a VPN is the only guaranteed method to keeping your computer and its data safe.