What Is a 'Computer Virus'?

Virus warning on computer screen
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Question: What Is a 'Computer Virus'?

Answer: "Virus" is an umbrella term used to describe malicious programs that unwantedly install themselves onto your computer. Viruses will cause you a range of damage, from the very mild to the entire loss of your computer data.

A good way to describe viruses is to call them "malware", or software programs that have malicious intent.

Viruses/malware are commonly broken down into Classic Viruses, Trojans, Worms, adware, and spyware.

"Classic viruses" is a term coined in 1983.

Classic viruses are malicious programs that rewrite existing computer code on your computer. Classic viruses are not so much unwanted additions to your system as they are mutations of existing code.

Trojans, or Trojan Horses, are additions to your system. These malicious programs masquerade as legitimate files in your email, deceiving you into willfully adding them to your hard drive. Trojans rely on you to intentionally open your computer to them. Once on your machine, Trojans then function as independent programs that operate secretly. Commonly, Trojans steal passwords or perform "denial of service" (overload your system) attacks. Examples of trojans include Backdoor and Nuker.

Worms, or Internet Worms, are also unwanted additions to your system. Worms are different from Trojans, though, because they copy themselves without your direct assistance... they robotically worm their way into your email, and begin broadcasting copies of themselves without permission.

Because they do not require user intervention to reproduce, worms reproduce at an alarming rate. Examples of worms include Scalper, SoBig, and Swen.

Adware and Spyware are cousins to trojans, worms, and viruses. These programs "lurk" on your machine. Adware and spyware are designed to observe your Internet habits and then pummel you with advertising, or to report back to their owners via secret messages.

Sometimes, these products will even use your hard drive to store and broadcast pornography and advertising back to the Internet. Nasty!

Whew, these semantics and definitions of viruses/malware can be very obscure to the non-technical user. However, it isn't crucial to distinguish between these products technically. What is important is how you consciously defend against these malware infections.

Next: Resources for Understanding and Defending Against Viruses/Spyware/Hackers
 

  1. Lock Down Your PC: The Antivirus Handbook 
  2. Top 9 Windows Antivirus, 2004
  3. Understanding Virus Names
  4. Blocking Spyware: The Basics
  5. Stop That Email Spam!
  6. Preventing Phishing Attacks
  7. Help! I Think I've Been Hacked!

 

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