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Defining Malware

Posted By adam On November 20, 2009 @ 10:34 AM In Security Help | No Comments

Chad from IN asks:

What’s the difference between spyware, viruses, malware, adware and grayware?

Good question, Chad! While spyware, viruses, malware, adware and grayware are all bad, there are fundamental differences between the five which might help you combat them.

Firstly, let’s take a look at malware. Malware is a general term referring to all of the nasties that can infect your computer, from viruses to spyware! Malware is actually short for ‘malicious software’… that’s not surprising, considering what it can do to your computer!

Next up is one of the most well-known types of malware: computer viruses! In case you didn’t know, the first computer virus was Bob Thomas’s “Creeper”, created way back in 1971 on the US Department of Defense’s ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet. Out of that was born the first piece of anti-virus software, the “Reaper”. So, what is a computer virus? Strictly speaking, a computer virus is just a self-replicating computer program. It doesn’t have to be destructive, although many are. In fact, early viruses were often harmless and simply displayed a funny message or poem. Usually, computer viruses find their way into your computer by piggybacking on a legitimate program, for example, one that you might download from the Internet. Anti-virus programs such as Norton or McAfee will pick up most viruses, but you should always be careful when downloading files from the Internet. Some might spell doom for your computer system!

Unlike viruses, spyware usually doesn’t self-replicate, but it can be equally or even more harmful to you and your computer. Although spyware might not disrupt your use of your computer, it might collect information about your usage which might be considered an invasion of privacy. One example of software which could be considered spyware is a key logging program. Key loggers record what you type and allow the installer of the program to effectively monitor your computer usage. Spyware can also have some financial implications: for example, if you access online banking with a spyware-infected computer you could have your details stolen!

Adware is a type of software that might not be considered to be malware, depending on your point of view. The difference between adware and other malware is that in many cases the user actually consents to having the adware installed on their computer. In most cases, adware is installed in conjunction with free software or as a seemingly useful browser add-on (like a toolbar). Once it’s found its way into your computer system, it hits you with a barrage of advertisements; from pop-ups to banner ads! Because adware is often installed with the user’s consent, it is often not classified as malware by antivirus programs and often a separate adware removal program will be needed.

Grayware is a very broad term for all of those computer nasties that are annoying but not necessarily totally destructive, including adware, joke programs and dialers. Unfortunately, your antivirus program might not remove grayware (in fact, one antivirus program maker was sued by a grayware creator for blocking the installation of their program!) so you’ll need to install other programs to get rid of it. You should make sure that you check reviews of your chosen product as some ‘grayware removers’ are viruses in themselves!

The only way to stay completely safe from malware is to shut your computer out from the Internet, and I think everyone would agree that’s a bit harsh! Now that you know what you’re fighting, getting rid of computer nasties will a bit easier for you.

~Brandon Zubek


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