Using the Internet can sometimes be risky. From malware and viruses to phishing and data leaks, Internet safety is more important than ever. But what do we mean when we say 'Internet safety', anyway?

Joe with his toolkit

What does Internet safety mean?

Essentially, it is ensuring you behave in a way that protects your online activity from malicious software, would-be hackers, and data leaks. These methods can vary from the things you can do yourself to the role antivirus software plays in keeping you protected from online threats.

Here are some common Internet safety measures and why they matter:

Why use antivirus software?

It's important to use antivirus software, especially if you are using a Windows computer, as it can protect you from numerous online threats, including spyware, malicious software, and viruses.

Most antivirus software will also keep you safe from phishing – a method of fraudulently gaining access to important personal information, such as email passwords, online banking logins, and bank account details, by using fake websites or emails.

Phishing is often conducted using an official-looking website or email that mimics a well-known brand. Most antivirus software will keep you protected from this tactic by identifying and flagging up worrying features, including if the website doesn't have a padlock in the URL bar or if the email sender has been identified as dangerous by other users.

What is malware?

Malware is malicious software that's specifically designed to worm its way onto your computer, smartphone, or tablet. Once inside, malware can often access your personal information, banking details, the files on your computer, and do all manner of nasty stuff.

Viruses are a common type of malware attached to files you download from the Internet. They can be difficult to detect, as they are often disguised as video clips, image files, and ordinary word processing or spreadsheet documents. If a stranger sends you what they assure you is a funny video – while tempting to click – it's better to ignore it. This will help avoid exposing your computer to infection, so always act cautiously when it comes to strangers bearing cat videos.

Malware is an umbrella term that includes a wide range of online threats, including spyware (a virus that can track what you type) and the websites you access to extract personal information.

What is a Trojan horse?

A Trojan horse is a common type of Internet virus that can affect your computer in a variety of different ways. Named after the famous Greek legend, Trojan horse viruses enter your computer under the guise of an ordinary download. The virus is unleashed after the file has finished downloading, often causing significant damage.

Some Trojans can give external users the ability to control your computer remotely – accessing, deleting, and transferring files. Other Trojans are specially geared to source account details for online banking or spy on your online activity to gain access to your personal information.

Ransomware is another common type of Trojan horse virus. Once the virus has taken hold and an external user has control of your computer, it holds important functions 'to ransom' until a fee has been paid.

How does antivirus software work?

Antivirus software protects your computer from online attacks using a variety of methods. One key way is on-access scanning. This feature will give files a once-over to see if there's any malware hidden inside before you attempt to open an executable file (a file that can make changes to your computer). If the file is safe, it will open automatically. If not, the file won't open and you'll be alerted that a risk has been prevented.

This typically uses one of two methods to protect your computer – sandbox testing or heuristics – though some programs will use a combination of both.

Sandbox testing emulates the instructions within a file in a controlled environment that cannot impact your computer, to see how it reacts. If the file has instructions that could be potentially harmful, it will be flagged and prevented from opening. This method usually takes longer, as the file must be tested before it's determined to be acceptable or not.

A heuristic approach to virus detection involves conducting rigorous checks to determine the likelihood that a file could be dangerous to your computer, such as investigating the sender, the destination, and the intent of the file.

Antivirus software updates frequently to add to a pre-existing list of known viruses and their behaviours. By logging the way new viruses behave as they encounter them, antivirus software can avoid flagging many 'false positives' – safe programs and applications that are mistaken for malicious ones.

Why are complex passwords important?

Passwords are the last line of defence against hackers and malicious software. Complex passwords that don't use real words, instead use a random selection of letters and numbers, for example, and are significantly stronger than common phrases. Hackers can try and crack a password using a method called an online dictionary attack. These attacks will automatically try to guess a password using millions of different dictionary words or a combination of words.

Weak passwords can leave your confidential information open to a data leak. Data leaks can be particularly damaging, as hackers can use your personal data to commit identity fraud – like using your name, address, and banking information to take out loans or make big purchases.

For more information on how to create secure passwords read our guide.