What is Malware?
It's a situation we're all familiar with; you're surfing the web, minding your own business, when suddenly a pop-up advertisement appears warning you about the dangers of malware putting you at risk from data loss and stolen details. Despite the warning, you have very little idea of what malware actually is, and you're sceptical about the advertised tool which has quite literally popped into your life. So what is malware, and how do you protect against it? It's a tricky question, since malware can be one of a number of different types of malicious software, but this guide is here to help. Below you will find all the information you need to recognise the main types of malware, some information regarding the appropriate tools to deal with the threats. Read on to find out how.
What is malware?
Malware is defined as any computer software designed to disrupt or destroy the way a computer operates, or to gather personal information about a user and relay this information to another party. Malware is often disguised as useful software, or bundled along with otherwise useful utilities, in order that it is installed without the realisation of the user. Some programmers create malware simply as a practical joke, as a technically challenging activity, or to maliciously destroy target machines, but the vast majority of malware is written with the goal of making money either through bombarding the user with advertising, or by collecting personal details from an infected computer. In this case, the target computer will still be largely usable as normal, thus giving experienced computer users the access required to remove the malware. The term malware encompasses a broad range of software, described under the following heading, but the term is sometimes erroneously used to refer to a legitimate program which causes damage to a computer system through a programming error, or 'bug'. In this case, the software is termed 'defective software', rather than 'malware'.
Types of malware
Malware comes in many different types, and although the classifications below are often used interchangeably by inexperienced users, the software principles, and even the method of transmission of the malware, vary hugely from one type to the next. The list below will provide information about the different types of malware, how they spread, and what they can do to a computer if left unchecked.
- Viruses - while viruses are the most feared type of malware, they are by no means the most common, making up an estimated 15% of malware available today. In brief, a virus is a computer program able to self replicate and copy itself to other programs present on the hard disk, after being installed without the user's consent. Viruses may also execute destructive commands, such a hijacking computer resources, sending itself to contacts, or locking users out of the computer.
- Trojans - a Trojan, or Trojan horse, is any type of malware which tricks the user into installing it, by mimicking something desirable for example, and then runs in the background without the user's knowledge.
- Worms - while worms spread like viruses, unlike viruses they need not reside within an already existing computer program. Many worms do not contain a destructive element, but cause damage by consuming bandwidth and resources on target systems.
- Adware - adware defines a type of malware which displays advertisements to a user in an irritating or malicious way.
- Spyware - spyware collects data about a user and passes it back to a central server or database in order that the user receives targeted advertisements based on their usage. Adware is also a type of spyware, though it should be noted, however, that not all targeted advertising is the result of spyware.
- Rootkits - rootkits are small pieces of software designed to hide malware from detection by the operating system, and thus prevent removal.
- Ransomware - this type of malware restricts access to a computer, or encrypts data on the hard disk, and demands payment in order to transfer control of the affected computer back to the user again.
What can be done to protect against malware?
Some education into staying safe online, which sites to avoid, and how to make sure file downloads are legitimate, is often the most powerful weapon against malware. It is also wise to install reliable anti-virus software, as well as an anti-malware tool. Most anti-virus software will even come equipped with a firewall to ensure that any malware which does make its way onto your computer is unable to access the Internet at all.
This guide has explained what malware is, the different types of malware, and how to make sure you are effectively protected against it. As with many technological problems, knowledge is the most effective barrier against your computer being misused against you, so don't stop here! Use this guide as a platform from which to read more deeply into the subject of malware, and to become as educated as possible as to the potential threats to your online security.