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VirusTotal: The Cybersecurity Practitioner’s Multi-Engine Shield

VirusTotal: The Cybersecurity Practitioner’s Multi-Engine Shield

 By Charles Joseph | Cybersecurity Researcher
 Published on December 15th, 2023

VirusTotal is a free online service that analyzes files and URLs for viruses, worms, trojans, and other kinds of malicious content detected by antivirus engines and website scanners. It acts as an information aggregator, collecting the scanning results from various antivirus products and online scan engines.

Here’s how it typically works:

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  1. File or URL Submission: Users can submit a file or URL to VirusTotal for analysis.
  2. Scanning: VirusTotal then scans the submitted item with various antivirus engines, website scanners, and file and URL analysis tools.
  3. Reporting: After the scanning process, VirusTotal provides a report to the user. This report shows the results of each antivirus engine’s scan.
  4. Database of Previous Scans: VirusTotal also maintains a database of previous scans, so users can see if a file or URL has been scanned before and what the results were.
  5. Community Input: Users can also comment on files and URLs, adding to the collective knowledge about potential threats.

VirusTotal is widely used by IT professionals and others interested in cybersecurity to quickly assess potential threats and understand the detection capabilities of different antivirus products. It’s important to note that while VirusTotal is a valuable tool, it is not a substitute for having a dedicated antivirus program installed on a device.

History of VirusTotal

VirusTotal was founded in 2004 by Hispasec Sistemas, a Spanish security company. Its initial concept was to provide a free online service where users could upload files and check them for viruses using multiple antivirus engines. This approach offered a more comprehensive scan than using just a single antivirus program, as it combined the detection capabilities of various engines.

Key points in VirusTotal’s history include:

  1. Early Development (2004-2007): Initially, VirusTotal started as a simple service with a few antivirus engines. Over time, it added more engines and improved its interface and capabilities.
  2. Acquisition by Google (2012): In September 2012, VirusTotal was acquired by Google. This acquisition was part of Google’s efforts to improve online security. Under Google, VirusTotal continued to operate independently, maintaining its partnerships with other antivirus companies and security experts.
  3. Transition to Chronicle (2018): In January 2018, VirusTotal, along with other cybersecurity projects at Google, became part of Chronicle, a new cybersecurity company within Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Chronicle was intended to help enterprises manage and understand their own security-related data.
  4. Continuous Evolution: Throughout its history, VirusTotal has continuously evolved. It expanded its services beyond just antivirus scans to include URL scanning, domain reports, and behavioral analysis of uploaded files. The platform also fostered a community where security researchers and the public could share information about threats.
  5. Collaboration and Expansion: VirusTotal has collaborated with antivirus and security companies around the world. These partnerships have allowed it to use a wide range of antivirus engines and offer a comprehensive analysis of potential threats.

VirusTotal’s history reflects the growing importance of cybersecurity in the digital age and the need for collaborative efforts to combat online threats. The service remains a popular and valuable tool for both cybersecurity professionals and the general public for assessing and understanding malware and other cyber threats.

How Effective Is VirusTotal

VirusTotal is highly effective in several ways, but it’s important to understand its strengths and limitations to assess its overall effectiveness:


  1. Multiple Antivirus Engines: VirusTotal uses a wide range of antivirus engines, which increases the likelihood of detecting malware. Different engines have varying strengths and specializations so that this multi-engine approach can catch more threats than any single antivirus program.
  2. Timely Detection: New malware signatures and heuristic detection updates are frequently added by participating antivirus companies. This makes VirusTotal effective in identifying recent threats.
  3. Community and Expert Feedback: VirusTotal allows users and experts to comment on and share information about files and URLs, adding a layer of community-driven insight.
  4. User-Friendly and Accessible: The service is free and easy to use, making it accessible to a wide range of users, from cybersecurity professionals to casual users.
  5. URL and Domain Analysis: Beyond file scanning, VirusTotal can analyze URLs and domains for malicious activity, broadening its usefulness in cybersecurity.


  1. Not a Standalone Solution: VirusTotal should not replace installed antivirus software on a device. It’s a supplementary tool, best used for checking specific files or URLs.
  2. False Positives/Negatives: Like all antivirus tools, VirusTotal can produce false positives (flagging benign files as malicious) and false negatives (missing actual malware). The consensus approach helps mitigate this, but it’s not foolproof.
  3. No Real-Time Protection: VirusTotal doesn’t provide real-time monitoring or protection. It’s a reactive tool, used to analyze specific files or URLs on demand.
  4. Limited Behavioral Analysis: While some engines in VirusTotal may perform behavioral analysis, it’s limited compared to dedicated behavioral detection systems in full-fledged antivirus programs.
  5. Privacy Considerations: When you upload a file to VirusTotal, it becomes part of their dataset and may be shared with security researchers and antivirus companies. This might raise privacy concerns, especially with sensitive files.

When to Use VirusTotal

A cybersecurity practitioner should use VirusTotal in various scenarios where its multi-engine scanning and analysis capabilities can provide valuable insights. Here are some key situations where VirusTotal is particularly useful:

  1. Analyzing Suspicious Files and URLs: When encountering an unknown file or URL, especially if it’s from an untrusted source, VirusTotal can quickly assess whether it’s recognized as malicious by any of the numerous antivirus engines it uses.
  2. Cross-Checking False Positives/Negatives: If a local antivirus solution flags a file or URL or, conversely, fails to flag something suspicious, VirusTotal can help confirm or refute the suspicion by offering multiple opinions.
  3. Research and Threat Intelligence: For ongoing cybersecurity research and threat intelligence gathering, VirusTotal provides valuable data about malware trends, attack vectors, and the efficacy of different antivirus solutions.
  4. During Incident Response: In the event of a suspected security breach, VirusTotal can be used to analyze files and URLs involved in the incident, aiding in the identification of the nature and scope of the attack.
  5. Validating Email Attachments: Before opening email attachments, especially in a corporate environment where phishing attacks are common, scanning them with VirusTotal can add an extra layer of security.
  6. Developing Security Solutions: When developing or testing security solutions, VirusTotal can be used to verify how different types of malware are detected by various antivirus engines.
  7. Educational Purposes: For training or educational demonstrations in cybersecurity, VirusTotal serves as a practical tool to show how different malware samples are detected and analyzed.
  8. Integrating into Security Workflows: Some cybersecurity practitioners integrate VirusTotal into their automated security workflows or use its API for bulk queries or more complex investigations.

It’s important for cybersecurity practitioners to use VirusTotal responsibly, respecting privacy and legal considerations, especially when handling potentially sensitive data. VirusTotal should complement, not replace, other cybersecurity measures and practices.


VirusTotal is highly effective as a quick, multi-engine scanner for files and URLs, offering a broad perspective on potential threats. However, its effectiveness is maximized when used in conjunction with other security measures, such as real-time antivirus protection and safe computing practices. Understanding its role as a complementary tool rather than a complete cybersecurity solution is key to leveraging its strengths effectively.

"Amateurs hack systems, professionals hack people."
-- Bruce Schneier, a renown computer security professional
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