Signature-based detection is a process that is commonly used to address software threats on your computer. These threats may include malware, viruses, worms, Trojans, and many others. 

In signature-based detection, appropriate signatures for each file are created and compared with known signatures that have been stored and detected before. The process never stops until a match is found. When this happens, the file is considered a threat and automatically gets blocked.

The antivirus programs you installed on your computer may be using signature-based detection to check for malware.

Other interesting terms…

Read More about “Signature-Based Detection

Let’s first explore some relevant terms to understand the concept behind signature-based detection.

What Is a Signature?

A signature in cybersecurity is commonly known as a “pattern” associated with a malicious component that can threaten an operating system (OS), a web server, and other computer resources. This pattern can be a series of bytes inside a file or byte sequence in network traffic. These patterns can be disguised in various forms, such as unauthorized software execution or network and directory access and other malicious activities that aim to bypass security solutions.

You can think of a signature as a person’s DNA. It’s unique to each person but every family would have similar indicators in their DNA patterns.

What Security Systems Use Signature-Based Detection?

Antivirus products use signature-based detection to detect malicious software threats. It is also known for being an integral part of security systems, such as Address Verification Services (AVSs), Intrusion Detection Systems (IDSs), Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPSs), and firewall systems.

These security solutions can quickly and efficiently detect malware with the help of signature-based detection.

How Does Signature-Based Detection Work?

A malware family typically contains a pattern or signature typical across all malware from the same variant. Most antivirus products use signature-based detection to help identify malware and other threats with the same pattern.

To learn more about how signature-based detection works, here is a step-by-step process on what happens in an antivirus scanner.

  • A piece of malware is discovered.
  • The malware pattern is added to the database.
  • The antivirus scanner is updated to include the pattern.
  • The antivirus program finds a piece of software containing the same pattern.
  • The antivirus scanner then flags that piece of software as malware.

Signature-based detection is similar to using DNA to determine the identity of a crime suspect. Forensic scientists process DNA from hair, saliva, and blood found in crime scenes. They will then scan law enforcement databases for matches. If a match is found, the police will investigate further and uncover everything they can about the person who can be considered a suspect. 

What Is the Difference between Anomaly-Based and Signature-Based Detection?

Signature-based and anomaly-based detection have the same purpose—to identify and alert users of any software threats. While signature-based detection focuses on threats, anomaly-based detection considers network behavior changes.

Signature-based detection relies on preprogrammed patterns that make detecting malicious domains or byte sequences usually found in packet headers easier. On the other hand, anomaly-based detection observes network behaviors for abnormalities. When anomalies are detected, an alert is issued.

What Is the Difference between Behavior-Based and Signature-Based Detection?

With technology development happening daily, hackers also do their best to find ways to beat systems. Although signature-based detection is known for its reliability in tracking known threats, there are times when new malicious codes appear that security systems don’t easily recognize.

That is where behavior-based detection comes in. This method involves a thorough examination of network behaviors. Like anomaly-based detection, systems that use behavior-based detection check for any abnormal network behaviors.

What Is the Difference between Heuristic and Signature-Based Detection?

In signature-based detection, security systems write signatures for patterns found in files containing malicious software so anti-malware programs can detect them easily. In contrast, heuristic-based scanning uses rules or algorithms to search for commands that may indicate malicious activity.

Unlike signature-based detection, some heuristic-based scanning methods can easily detect malware without a signature. Most antivirus and security solutions use signature-based and heuristic-based detection methods to catch malicious software.

Signature-based detection has benefited the anti-malware industry and helped users block malware. With the increasing number of threats that networks deal with daily, it employs tried-and-tested malware detection processes like signature-based detection.

However, since threats constantly evolve and become more sophisticated, signature-based detection may no longer be enough. For this reason, security systems mostly use a combination of signature-based, behavior-based, and heuristic-based detection methods.

Key Takeaways

  • Signature-based detection is a method used in detecting malware and other malicious codes.
  • Signature-based detection is commonly used by antivirus programs.
  • Heuristic-based malware detection is often used alongside signature-based detection.