What are software updates?
Computer viruses take hold by exploiting flaws in software code. These could be anything, from not knowing how to deal with unusual user input, to failing to play well with other programs.
It's these quirks that virus writers are constantly looking for & trying to exploit.
Whenever software manufacturers find an issue they'll develop and release updates to fix them - think of it like a sticking plaster for a cut. To help prevent viruses you should ensure these patches are applied as they're released.
Fortunately a lot of software can be set to update automatically, making the process much easier for you.
Which programs do I need to update - and how?
Ideally all software on your computer should be kept up to date as any programs can catch a virus. This isn't always practical though, so we've listed the main ones that virus writers have historically targeted.
Most of the software listed below will update themselves automatically, however we've detailed how you can manually ensure they're up to date.
The Operating System is the beating heart of your computer or phone; it's an incredibly complex piece of software that enables all other software to run. On most home PCs this is either Microsoft Windows or Apple OSX, whilst for phones the most common are iOS (for iPhones) and Android.
The system you have will determine how you update it:
- Save any open files and close all open programs.
- Press the Windows key (on your keyboard) or click the start button (the Windows icon in the bottom left of the screen) to open the Start screen.
- Simply start typing "check for updates" (a search box will automatically appear as you start typing).
- An option will appear for "Check For Updates"; select this.
- If Windows finds any updates for your machine (it might take up to a minute to check) it will then display its findings.
- Click on "Install Updates" to begin the process - this can take a few minutes depending on the update, your system, and your internet speed.
- When it's finished it may prompt you to restart your computer.
- The Microsoft website has further details on how to do this.
- Save any open files and close all open programs.
- On your computer go to the Apple menu, select System Preferences, and click "Software Updates".
- Your computer will check for any available software updates and list them. To install any simply click the "Update Now" button next to it.
- The Apple website has full details on how to do this.
- Check for updates by going to: Settings -> General -> Software Update
- Or visit Apple's website for guidance
- You can normally check for updates by going to: Settings -> About Device -> Update -> Check For Updates
- Android updates can be different for each phone manufacturer; if the above doesn't work then visit the website of your phone manufacturer & search for "Android Update" to view their help pages.
Your web browser is the application you use to view the internet, such as Chrome, Edge, Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari.
Safari (on Apple Mac computers and iPhones) and Microsoft Edge & Internet Explorer (on Windows computers) will update automatically when you update your operating system, however if you have either Firefox, Chrome, or Opera then you'll need to update these separately:
- Launch Firefox & click the 3 horizontal lines icon in the top right of the screen, then click Help (at the bottom of the menu).
- Click About Firefox
- In the box that appears, it will either say "Firefox is up to date" or a button will apear with the message "Restart to update Firefox". If this button is present then click it.
- In Chrome, click the 3 vertical dots icon at the top right to open a menu.
- If you see a button "Update Google Chrome" then click this, followed by "Relaunch".
- If you don't see this button, then you're on the latest version already.
- For more assistance, visit the Google website.
- Click the red "O" logo in the top left of the screen to open the menu.
- Click "Update & Recovery" on the menu, and then "Check for update".
As well as your operating system and browser, viruses will sometimes try to exploit other applications you have installed on your computer. For this reason you should also try to keep all your software up to date to help prevent infections.
Many programs these days will automatically check for updates, but if you're not sure you can normally manually check for them too.
Sometimes your antivirus software may (depending on which one you have) be able to check for updates for all your software automatically. Look for a feature called something like "Vulnerability scanner" or "Application Updates".
If you don't have this then you'll have to look at each piece of software individually. The most important ones to check are:
Adobe Acrobat Reader
Adobe Acrobat Reader is the program that is most commonly used to read PDF files. Over the years these have been a popular file type for virus writers to target, manipulating them to carry viruses which are then often sent out in spam emails.
Update the tool by opening it and going to the "Help" menu and "Check for updates". More help is available from the Adobe website.
Microsoft Office tools
Like PDF files, some Microsoft Office files (eg those created in Word, Excel, and Powerpoint) can be used to spread viruses.
Most Office applications are set to update themselves automatically, but you can double check this. Open the application (you'll need to repeat this for each one, such as Word, Excel, and Powerpoint) and open a document or create a new one. Click "File" in the top left corner and then "Account" from the list on the left. Check under "Office Updates", and if an update is available, select "Update Now".
More help is available from the Microsoft website.
This is a piece of software that hooks into your web browser and enables a lot of web functionality - most of the time you won't even know you have it, although it is often targeted by virus writers.
Update it by clicking the Start button (the Windows icon on the bottom left of your screen) and begin typing "Java". An option for "Check for Java Updates" should appear if you have Java installed (if it doesn't appear you can ignore this section on Java!). Select this, and in the menu that appears ensure that the box for "Automatically check for updates" is selected.
You can also click the "Check Now" button to verify that it's up to date. If a new version is offered then install this, and select "Uninstall" if you get a message saying "Out-of-Date Java versions Detected".
More help is available on the Java website.
Whilst the above are the main applications to keep updated, as they're the most commonly targetted by viruses, we all have many other software products installed too. It's worth periodically checking for any updates to these. You can often do this within any application by looking for a menu item labelled "Tools", "About", or "Help" - the option to check for updates is often within these.
For Apple Mac computers, updating applications is very straightforward. Open the App Store app and click Updates in the App Store toolbar; if any updates are listed you can use the Update buttons to download and install these.
Why can't program makers get it right the first time?
One question that's regularly asked is why do we need these regular patches - why can't software makers develop secure programs in the first place? On the face of it it would seem simple to do. Sadly though, it isn't.
We take for granted all the features our software has, but with increased functionality comes increased complexity. We're also living in an interconnected world with lots of systems talking to each other in complex ways.
This complexity makes it exceedingly difficult to identify all possible decisions that a piece of software may make - it's inevitable that there'll always be some unintended consequences that haven't been foreseen. Attackers only need to be lucky once by finding just one weakness; software developers need to prevent them all.
Over the last decade there's been huge progress in developing software that's fundamentally more secure (even if it may not always seem it!).
After several highly damaging viruses in the early 2000's, the Microsoft boss Bill Gates sent out a now infamous memo to all employees making security their top priority. As a direct result of this, Microsoft developed new strategies and approaches to software development, perhaps most importantly pioneering something known as the Security Development Lifecycle (SDL). This framework ensures that security is considered throughout the entire software lifecycle - even before the first bit of code has been writen.
Microsoft have made this methodology public and it, along with similar initiatives, has transformed the way in which many companies do software development.
Of course, whilst many companies do take security seriously, many other companies don't. It's a fact of life that companies are in existence to make money - and to do this they often need to push their products out to market quickly.
This focus on speed can sometimes be at the expense of security - after all as consumers we predominantly buy features and always want the latest and greatest product. Security is something we hope we can take for granted, but the reality is that as consumers we have no way of making reasonable judgements about how secure products are anyway.
Until someone comes up with a easy way for customers to rank products by how secure they are, then the development of new features will always be a company's priority - not security.