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Malware, Spyware, Adware: What Does It All Mean?

I’ve Always Wanted To Know:

Malware, Spyware, Virus, Adware: What does it all mean? What’s the difference? How do I protect my PC against all of this?


Have you ever been told to get a malware scanner? Ever received the threat of a virus? Have you been advised not to use a specific program because it has spyware? What is adware, and is it as bad as a virus? What is the difference between all of these various terms? Do you need a separate program for each, or does one cover them all? A lot of questions need to be answered, so we’ll cover them one by one.

Malware is the generic term, short for malicious software, used to encompass all of the negative types of software that a user may encounter. This type of software can include viruses, Trojans, spyware, adware, and pretty much any other software that has a malicious or devious purpose. Each specific type of malware has a different method of attack, or purpose, and whether or not a malware scanner will detect and remove each type depends on the program’s features, and how up-to-date its detection mechanism is.

Virus: This type of malware is designed to infect a host computer and damage or destroy information. It is designed to replicate itself into other files so that it’s difficult to remove and easy to pass on.

Trojan: These types of malware can be viruses, worms, adware or spyware, but usually only activate once a specific situation or date is reached. These can be very dangerous, as they can be designed to only log activity when someone goes to their banking site, or only destroy files when an anti-virus is run to try and remove it. These programs are most often disguised as something you’d want, like a free expensive program or secret way to unlock something, enticing people to run it.

Spyware: This type of program is designed to monitor and report back on a user’s activity. It may be monitoring what you type, where you go, or what you do on the computer. This information can allow someone to log in to your accounts, pose as you, and use the information gathered for other purposes. Not all spyware is bad, as many companies have official monitoring programs which record actions for legal compliance or IT policy reasons. Generally, this is referred to as logging or monitoring software, though it may function in the same way as spyware.

Adware: These programs generate ads or track browsing habits to generate ads. They can be included in part of an ad-supported program, but can also be nefarious in nature. These programs typically report what you viewed on the internet, the time, and how long you looked at something.

Worms: These programs are designed to spread by trying to transmit to other computers, either via direct means (sending an e-mail posing as you from your e-mail program) or indirect means by exploiting vulnerabilities it finds in other computers in your local area network. These can deliver other forms of malware, but are classified as worms by their focus on infecting the greatest number of computers possible.

Rootkit: These types of malware install at such a basic level that the operating system generally does not know they are there or that anything is wrong. This type of malware can load before the operating system starts, making it very hard for the malware scanners to detect. These are some of the toughest forms of malware to remove, as they are designed specifically to prevent detection and removal.

Greyware: These types of programs fall into the grey area of software, due to the fact that they may have a legitimate use, but can also contain or perform nefarious or annoying actions. Examples of greyware include remote connection tools, logging software, joke pop-ups, and other software that may have a nefarious purpose, but could also have a legitimate or desirable one. Greyware generally does not cause the level of harm a virus or trojan would, but does have the ability to open the door to more serious malware.

So how do you remove these menaces and protect yourself? The best thing to do is to look for a security program that has a well-rounded set of features and real-time protection. It is also important to make sure your security program is updated often, and that you have the updates set to automatically download and apply. Malware is being written every day and no security program is perfect (especially against unknown forms of malware), so it’s a good idea to practice safe browsing habits while keeping your security software up-to-date. 


P.S. I’ve been told a lot of times, “you guys should write a book on internet security”, and I know it’s a shameless plug, but WorldStart did write one. WorldStart’s Internet Security Survival Guide eBook (you read it on your computer/tablet/eReader device) is available by clicking here [1] and provides an amazing amount (over 400 pages) of security and safety information that every Internet user should know.

Do you have a general technology or electronics question you always wanted to know like “How does a Microwave work?” or “Why do LED’s last so long?” Write me at Tim@WorldStart.com [2] and your question may be answered in an upcoming “I Always Wanted To Know.” For specific computer support questions ask our writers by clicking here [3].