Americans are besieged by dangerous viruses both online and in real life. Malware continues to breach cybersecurity systems while COVID assails public health, and each issue is muddled by public debate about necessary measures for protection.
Since tech titans Apple, Microsoft, and Google are prioritizing security and tightening their operating ecosystems, some digital experts have declared that personal computers no longer need third-party antivirus protection.
- More than three-quarters of American adults (77 percent) currently use antivirus software. Twenty-four percent of these users have antivirus installed on their smartphones.
- Approximately 30.5 million households have free antivirus protection on their computers, and an estimated 49.8 million households currently pay for their software. More than 50 percent of people who pay for their antivirus protection rely on either McAfee or Norton programs.
- Free and paid antivirus programs were both fairly effective at preventing attacks, but paid users were 17 percent less likely to experience breakthrough viruses or malware in the past twelve months than those using free services.
- Those who pay for their antivirus software were more likely to find it very effective than those with free programs. Thirty-six percent of paid users said their antivirus was very effective compared to 24 percent of free users.
- Nearly 40 percent of people without antivirus software are open to installing it on their devices in the next 6 months (up from 25 percent of non-users in January 2021). People who do not yet have antivirus protection said they’d be most interested in antivirus programs that come with identity theft protection, firewalls, or VPNs.
Widespread Antivirus Software Use
Despite conflicting recommendations, antivirus software remains a prominent component of consumer cybersecurity defense, along with tools like password managers and virtual private networks.
In November 2021, we found that 77 percent of adults were using antivirus software. That proportion represents roughly 80.3 million U.S. households.
|Percentage of American adults using antivirus software
This is a slight decrease since the start of 2021, when 81 percent of Americans reported using antivirus. However, this dip may be partially attributable to timing. New devices often come with limited free antivirus offers, so the survey conducted just after the 2020 holidays may have captured more trial-period users.
While two in three Americans believed strongly that computers need antivirus, the level of enthusiasm for antivirus protection varied based upon users' operating systems. Those with Windows devices were far more definitive about the need for supplemental protection than Mac users.
|To what extent do you believe that computers need antivirus protection?
|A great deal or a lot
|Moderately or little
|None at all
The comparative skepticism of Apple users may be due partially to the longstanding myth that Macs are immune to viruses.
We found that Windows and Mac users were similarly affected by viruses (10.3 percent of Windows clients reported suffering a virus in the previous 12 months, compared to 8.3 percent of Apple customers), but traditionally entrenched attitudes were reflected in the disparity of antivirus subscriptions between Windows and Apple customers.
|Percentage of Americans using antivirus software
Most Mac users are actually (if unknowingly) protected by Apple’s proprietary XProtect malware removal system. The program is active by default in macOS. This may indicate that many Mac owners are unaware of the program or don't view it as antivirus software.
In addition to proprietary antivirus softwares like XProtect and Windows Defender, many major antivirus companies also offer complimentary lightweight versions, and others offer introductory subscriptions pre-installed on new devices. All told, we found that a significant portion of antivirus users were using cost-free software.
|How many users pay for antivirus?
|Percentage paying for antivirus
|Percentage using free antivirus
Microsoft programs, including the Windows Defender antivirus that comes installed on newer Windows machines, are the most popular programs. More than one in four people in this study rely upon Microsoft antivirus software.
Half of all users paying for their protection rely on Norton and McAfee antivirus. Additional consolidation may lie ahead, as Norton recently acquired Avast to create a share that will rival Microsoft.
|For your personal computer, which brand of antivirus software do you use?
|Users who pay for antivirus
|Users with free antivirus
Antivirus Adopters: Need, Satisfaction, and Effectiveness
With spyware, ransomware, and data breaches regularly grabbing headlines, privacy and security have become paramount concerns and primary reasons for using antivirus programs.
Nine out of ten subscribers said general security was a motivator for installing antivirus software and more than 60 percent cited privacy as a reason for use. A considerable number mentioned they use antivirus for security while using public Wi-Fi, shopping online, and trading cryptocurrency.
|Why do you use antivirus software?
|Increased security while online shopping
|Required for job
|Use public wi-fi without risk
|Secure VOIP phone calls
|To protect cryptocurrency exchanges
|* – Multiple responses allowed
So how effective do antivirus users believe their software is? Those with paid antivirus programs demonstrated greater faith in their protection than those accessing free versions. One in three people using a paid version of antivirus felt the programs were very effective, compared to one in three people using a free antivirus software.
|How effective do you think antivirus software is?
|Users who pay for antivirus
|Users with free antivirus
Users of paid software also experienced fewer impacts from virus or malware.
|Percentage affected by virus or malware over previous 12 months
|People with free antivirus
|People who pay for antivirus
Antivirus software provides protection and satisfaction to customers seeking security and privacy, so why do nearly one in four Americans online choose to forego such a safeguard?
Antivirus Holdouts: Resistance and Barriers
Those declining antivirus protection tended to doubt the software's effectiveness or necessity, and some simply didn't want to pay the expense.
More than a quarter of respondents without antivirus protection don’t believe the programs work: 27 percent saw the software as ineffective (compared to only 5 percent of those who subscribe to antivirus services).
When asked specifically why they don't use antivirus software, half of the holdouts denied needing it, while a third claimed it was too expensive.
|Why don’t you use antivirus software?
|I don't need it
|My subscription expired
|* – Multiple responses allowed
If those without antivirus protection don't believe that it works, don't believe they need it, and doubt that they can afford it, is there any room for the market to expand?
The Future of the Antivirus Software Market
We've seen that faith in antivirus software effectiveness dropped over the past year, as did overall usage among our respondents. The number of first-time subscribers also fell by half in the period between our recent polls.
|Percentage who started using antivirus programs in previous 12 months
While these signs appear ominous for the industry, we found that the percentage of non-users willing to sign up for antivirus protection had jumped from 25 percent to 39 percent over that same timeframe.
|Do you plan to get antivirus software in the next 6 months?*
|Yes, if the need arises
These results suggest a marketing opportunity for companies ready to meet consumer demands, including a fuller suite of security and conveniences beyond mere baseline protection. Several premier antivirus providers have already expanded such offerings.
Nearly a quarter of current non-users listed identity theft protection as an attractive antivirus component, and 16 percent said antivirus protection that included VPNs would be most appealing.
|Which of these antivirus features is most appealing to you?
|Percentage of non-users
|Identity theft protection
|Firewalls or network protection
|None of the above
|System performance optimization
|Encrypted cloud storage
New subscribers can prove particularly lucrative to antivirus brands, as customer loyalty runs deep in the field. Only 5 percent of antivirus users in our survey had plans to switch providers in the foreseeable future.
There also appears to be untapped potential in mobile antivirus protection. Viruses are generally associated with computers, but viruses seem to impact phones and computers at similar rates. Despite the threat, relatively few cell devices are protected by antivirus programs.
|Percentage of devices affected by malware
|Percentage of devices with antivirus
Perhaps emboldened by enhanced patching and updates, or dissuaded by doubtful experts, a telling number of consumers dropped antivirus protection and questioned its effectiveness over the past year.
The perils of malware persist and evolve, which is why many authorities insist antivirus software remains essential. Most of the public agrees. Three-quarters of Americans subscribe to such services, and many others remain open to joining.
As emerging dangers threaten security, privacy, cloud data, crypto trading, and cell phones, there will be cybersecurity companies poised to woo open-minded consumers. Those offering full slates of effective affordable services should fare particularly well.
Security.org surveyed 987 U.S. adults in November 2021 regarding their antivirus software usage via an online survey. The ages, races, and genders of participants were representative of the U.S. population, based upon Census data. We compared these results to a similar survey conducted in January 2021 with a different group of participants.