By Byron Acohido, USA TODAY

SEATTLE — Panda Security CEO Juan Santana says he has come up with a Web-based silver bullet that will slay computer viruses like Conficker and Koobface before they take root on your PC.

“The threat climate demands a new protection model,” Santana says.

The next few weeks will dictate how well his assertions hold up, as reviewers and consumers test drive the new Panda Cloud Antivirus service.

In an attempt to shake up the lucrative antivirus subscription market, Panda is tapping into two hot tech trends: Web-based “cloud” computing and free technology giveaways. Microsoft later this year will offer free basic antivirus protection, code-named Morro. And McAfee and AVG recently launched free protection tools to supplement their paid antivirus suites.

Traditional antivirus protection from companies such as Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro come in hefty, power-sapping programs that reside on your PC’s hard drive to filter out known malicious programs. Because cybercriminals have become adept at tweaking their attacks to sneak through, the software companies must update protection “signatures” on each PC at least once a day.

Panda Wednesday becomes the first consumer antivirus supplier to centralize this filtering and updating routine — by moving it into a data center sitting in the Internet cloud. To tap into this free service, you download a small pop-up dashboard from

The dashboard connects your PC to Panda’s data center, which monitors suspicious coding that comes into contact with your PC. Panda can now amass intelligence about hackers’ techniques, equipping it to more swiftly predict the bad guys’ next moves, Panda senior researcher Pedro Bustamante says.

While the data center keeps track of anything that looks remotely suspicious, it will take action only if an unauthorized program begins to execute on your PC. “A virus is basically harmless until it’s loaded into memory and executed,” says Martin McKeay, author of the Network Security Blog/Podcast, who was briefed on Panda’s new service.

McKeay says Panda’s approach frees up processing power and storage space on the PC. And it makes efficient use of the data center.

“There is a nice symmetry to the cloud service,” says Jonathan Penn, Forrester tech security analyst, who was also briefed. “Users get more up-to-date analysis, and Panda turns every customer into a sensor that feeds back data which they then can interpret to better identify emerging attacks.”

The power of free

Panda plans to offer this service free to consumers indefinitely, Santana says. He figures Panda has a head start over larger rivals. Still, the service must build a track record. McKeay wonders if Panda’s cloud protection will work well for PC users with slower Internet connections and if Panda is truly prepared to expand rapidly, if need be. “I’m slightly skeptical of the implementation,” McKeay says.

Meanwhile, one of Panda’s chief rivals — McAfee — on Tuesday launched a Cybercrime Response Unit website as a giveaway of its own. The site contains guidance for consumers and small-business owners who believe they might be a victim of a cybercrime. It includes a free infection-scanning tool and toll-free phone help.

“We’re trying to give you some insight as to whether you’re at a high or low risk for being the victim of a cybercrime,” says Pamela Warren, McAfee’s cybercrime strategist. “It’s also to help inform consumers and small-business owners about how they can avoid becoming victims.”

Amsterdam-based antivirus supplier AVG last week began making its LinkScanner tool, which checks Web links for infections, free as a stand-alone product. AVG, in fact, has built its reputation on its free antivirus suite, which it began giving away as a marketing strategy to get people to buy its heftier paid version. By giving away free security tools to millions, AVG has been able to sell enough paid subscriptions to grow its revenue 75% annually in each of the past four years, CEO J.R. Smith says.

“Our product strategy is to create goodwill, get the brand out there and market virally,” Smith says. “Our success is driven by the power of free.”

Forrester’s Penn says consumers have been adopting the free tools “as a supplement, not a substitute” to the security services they pay for.

Panda CEO Santana hopes to leverage this trend. He figures gaining loyalty from free users of Panda’s cloud protection service will help win new sales to businesses. “Let’s have the world test this, so we can steal market share from the traditional players,” Santana says.