The internet is awash with potential threats.
On average, a new malware specimen emerges every four seconds, and nine of the last ten years have seen record levels of malware being recorded.
In 2017 alone, we witnessed the world’s first digital weapon – the hardware-destroying Stuxnet – and the groundbreaking WannaCry ransomware.
But are malware and viruses the same, and do they require equal levels of diligence?
Know your enemy
A virus is a form of malware, in the same way an iPhone is a type of smartphone.
While the former is also the latter, it’s by no means the only member of that particular family.
Like their biological namesakes, computer viruses are designed to self-replicate and spread throughout their natural environment.
Meanwhile, malware is any software that maliciously targets a user’s device, from computers and phones to passive recording devices connected to a WiFi network – part of the Internet of Things.
So-called smart devices like Bluetooth bathroom scales and Amazon Dash reorder buttons are relatively unsophisticated, often providing an easy point of entry into domestic networks for hackers or cybercriminals.
The IoT is predicted to become a key battleground in the war against cybercrime.
Defining malware and viruses
Malware can take many forms:
- Viruses – contagious software that autonomously spreads through networks, often created for sheer devilment and capable of deleting user data or distributing it online
- Spyware, designed to discreetly monitor account activity or keystroke presses, thereby providing criminals with passwords and login credentials
- Trojans, updating the story of Troy’s wooden horse with seemingly innocuous software that will quietly damage security or exploit a host device’s resources
- Ransomware, like the aforementioned WannaCry, which effectively locks away files and folders until a ransom is paid
- Botnets, created to harness external devices’ processing power or internet bandwidth, for unscrupulous activities like spam message distribution
- Worms, whose rapid distribution across a web-enabled network can slow down and corrupt host devices, regardless of whether the worm is carrying a harmful payload
- Adware, often manifesting as unexpected advertising popups which fill browser windows, slow down devices and generally annoy people
Protect and survive
The reason people talk about antivirus software rather than malware software is because in the internet’s formative years, most online threats were viruses.
Antivirus software was primarily aimed at neutering malicious email attachments, or preventing compromised websites from discharging their payloads.
The variety of potential threats has expanded considerably since the 1990s, but the name has stuck.
Any modern antivirus package will have to protect against everything from botnets to worms.
Because new malware and viruses are being created all the time (or mutating in such a way the algorithms used to identify them fail to do so), antivirus software needs real-time updates.
An occasional root scan of a PC’s hard drive won’t be enough to filter out the latest threats, and neither will periodically Googling a dubious email subject to check its authenticity.
A dedicated antivirus package should be installed, and given full permission to update or run a scan whenever it wants – particularly while downloading files or visiting insecure websites.