There are dozens of antivirus products available. While none are the same, many of them use a specific type of technology to identify malware. Known as signature-based detection, it’s the primary way in which antivirus products find malware on infected computers. What is signature-based detection exactly, and how does it work?

Overview of Signature-Based Detection

Signature-based detection — when referenced in regards to cybersecurity — is the use of footprints to identify malware. All programs, apps, software and files have a digital footprint. Buried within their code, these digital footprints or signatures are typically unique to the respective property. With signature-based detection, antivirus products are able to scan a computer for the footprints of known malware.

How Signature-Based Detection Works

Antivirus products use signature-based detection in conjunction with a database. When scanning a computer, they’ll search for footprints matching those of known malware. These malware footprints are stored in a database. Antivirus products essentially search for the footprints of known malware. If they discover one of these footprints, they’ll recognize it as malware, in which case they’ll either delete or quarantine it.

For decades, antivirus products have used signature-based detection. It’s a highly effective method for identifying malware on computers as well as other devices. Malware, by definition, is malicious software. And like all software, it contains a footprint. When a new type of malware is discovered, cybersecurity experts will add its footprint to a database. All antivirus products using that database will then be able to easily find the malware on the computers and devices that they scan.

Here’s the step-by-step process for signature-based detection:

  1. A new type of malware is discovered.
  2. The malware’s footprint is added to a database.
  3. The antivirus product is updated to include the new database.
  4. The antivirus product is then able to find the malware during scans by searching for its footprint.

Other Methods of Detection

While most antivirus products use signature-based detection, some of them support other methods of detection as well. Behavior-based detection, for instance, is an alternative method. Behavior-based detection lives up to its namesake by identifying malware based on behavior.

Malware typically behaves differently than legitimate software. Even before it’s able to execute itself, malware may exhibit behaviors that can reveal its identity to antivirus products. Behavior-based detection involves scanning these behaviors to determine whether a piece of software is malicious. It’s not as accurate as signature-based detection. When used together, though, both methods of detection can lock down a computer and protect it from malware.

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