Just like the real world, the online world is full of both wonder and danger. For every good thing that jumps out to get your attention, there is also a shady threat lurking in the background, waiting to pounce on their next unsuspecting victim. This might sound a touch melodramatic, but that is the reality.
Everyone knows what a computer virus is, and most people have some understanding of what they can do. However, most people do not understand the broader picture. Viruses are just one form of malware, and so they represent only one small part of the total threat analysis. To try and remedy this problem, let’s go over the basics of malware: What it is, how it works, and how to protect yourself.
What Is Malicious Software?
Malicious software (often called malware for short) is any type of software that is intended to harm or hack the user. They might be attempting to steal your information, or they might simply do it for malicious reasons. Either way, it’s not worth the time to wonder about the motivations of a hacker. Instead, it’s best to focus on questions that you might actually be able to answer.
It’s very hard to pin down a definition for malware because it can work in so many different ways. Anything that is intended to cause harm or gain unauthorized access would fall under this broad heading, and that’s probably all you need to know.
What Can Malicious Software Do To A Computer?
First of all, the risk of malware is by no means limited to the computer. Any device which is capable of connecting to the internet might potentially be infected. Once infected, all sorts of bad things might happen.
For one thing, malware can allow someone else to take control of your computer/device. This might include the installation of programs, the changing of settings or passwords, or the theft of intellectual property (among other things). Anything that you put on the computer will be accessible to the one who controls the malware.
In many cases, malware is intended to bring about monetary gain for the attacker. In recent years, malware attacks have been used to lock people out of their computer systems. In cases like these, which are called “ransomware attacks,” the attacker will first infect your computer via phishing or some other social-engineering method. Then, they will use the illegitimate access they have gained to encrypt the entire hard drive. Normally, this will be followed up with a ransom demand, and the victim cannot regain access until they do as the hacker demands.
Obviously, ransomware attacks are seldom carried out against private individuals. Only companies and corporations have enough money to be appealing as ransomware targets. If someone infects your private computer with malware, they will probably have more modest goals. For instance, they can use a special type of malware called a keylogger to capture your online banking login info.
A keylogger is pretty self-explanatory. It spies on your computer and records every keystroke that is made. This will include everything from mundane internet searches to sensitive login credentials.
Yes, there are programs that can crack your password, but it’s not as bad as it might sound. These programs work by taking hundreds or even thousands of guesses. Obviously, most of those guesses will be wrong, but the computer is able to learn a tiny bit from every failed guess. Eventually, they can construct a complete set of login credentials. The good news is that these programs take a very long time to do their work. Thus, they are virtually useless against long and complex passwords.
In some cases, a hacker might have personal motivations for infecting you with malware. For instance, there have been cases in which people have used malware to spy on former partners or spouses who have rejected them. As petty as this might sound, there are plenty of people out there who are petty enough to do this.
If someone is trying to spy on you, they will probably use something called an APT (advanced persistent threat). This is like the undercover ninja of the malware world. The ninja does not expose himself, nor do anything that might draw attention. Instead, he sits in the background and quietly gathers information, doing nothing that might reveal his presence.
However, this kind of hacking is by no means innocent. Stalkers, serial killers, and other dangerous/deranged individuals can potentially use this sort of software to find and stalk their victims. Here’s a point to remember: Malware is almost always designed to get something from you. If they aren’t after your money or your data, they may be after you.
Trojans are basically programs in disguise. They masquerade as a trusted program so that you will open them. Once opened and given permission to install, they act as a vector with which to install all sorts of other disruptive malware. This software is named for a deceptive war tactic that was once used by the Greeks against their Trojan enemies. They pretended to retreat after presenting the trojans with a huge wooden horse, presumably as a peace offering. Little did the Trojans know that the Greeks had hidden their soldiers inside this horse. When the Trojan horse was brought inside the gate, The city of Troy was doomed.
Worms are some of the worst computer viruses of all. They behave a lot like other types of malware, except for one important difference: These viruses are self-replicating. Once set loose, they act as if they have a mind of their own. Like an infestation of worms, they will continue to reproduce, infecting any new system with which they come into contact.
As an example of how bad these programs can be, we might mention the Code Red virus (A.K.A. The Red Worm), which was first detected in 2001. Although this worm was neutralized fairly quickly upon discovery, it had already infected about 359,000 computers. This one garnered a lot of media attention because some highly confidential government information was hacked and released before the worm was discovered.
How To Guard Against Malicious Software
There are quite a few things you can do to guard against malicious software, and most of these measures are not overly technical. Quite honestly, most people are only vulnerable to malware because they don’t take the threat seriously. With a few simple precautions, you can make yourself a lot harder to hack.
Always Use Strong Passwords
Password cracking programs can be defeated pretty easily. All you have to do is make sure that all your passwords meet the following criteria:
- 18-20 characters long
- Contains a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters
- Contains at least a few numbers
- Contains at least one symbol
- No dictionary words
The best thing you can do here is to make up your own words. If you make up a random nonsense word that has no meaning in any language, it will be virtually impossible for any program to get through.
Be Careful Where You Click
Phishing attacks are a little bit harder, as they rely on tricking the user into giving up their crucial information. The main thing you have to worry about here is clicking on boobytrapped links. What do we mean by that, you ask? Well, it’s very simple. Malware can be embedded in a web link, causing it to be used on anyone who clicks the link. Most “doxing” attacks (i.e., attacks that are aimed at a person’s anonymity) occur in this way. Once you have clicked on that link, the attacker has your IP address, and that info will often be attached to your full name and home address.
Consider The Use Of Digital Disguise
Here’s an innovative idea that you might want to try: Disguise your computer! Here’s the concept: All malware has to be custom-tailored for one type of operating system or another. Some viruses are meant to infect Windows operating systems, while others might be made to target IOS or even Linux. For the record, the vast majority of malware programs are made to target Windows computers. There are two reasons for this. For one, Windows security is an absolute joke, and it’s not the funny kind. Their security is so abysmal that it has become a hacker’s playground. Apple and Linux fare much better in this department, but they are not immune.
Anyway, if you can spoof your Windows system to look like IOS or Fedora or something like that, it will really throw hackers for a loop. If you can fool them into thinking that your Windows computer is running Ubuntu (for example), they will send a virus that is tailored for Linux-based operating systems like that one. However, because this is actually a Windows computer, those attacks will be completely ineffective.
Always Stay Updated
In some ways, cybersecurity is like an arms race. Hackers and other bad actors are constantly looking for new weaknesses to exploit, while cybersecurity professionals are constantly looking for ways to close those loopholes. This is one of the main reasons that your computer (and all of its programs) have to be updated from time to time. Yes, the Windows update process is tedious, but it will help to make your system secure against the latest threats.
The viruses that were effective in the past are no longer effective in the present, and frequent updating is the reason for that. For instance, consider the “red worm” virus that we talked about earlier. Once it was identified, it was quickly neutralized. That happened because the red worm virus was exploiting a bug in certain computer systems. This bug was related to buffer overflow and was only exploitable because no one knew it existed. Because of all the security updates that have taken place since then, the red worm would never work in today’s world.
We should mention that malware is not a simple or easy subject. There are so many vectors of attack that we didn’t even have space to mention all of them. However, you should now have enough knowledge to understand how malware works and how you can guard yourself against it. You don’t have to be a cybersecurity professional to understand a few basic concepts and protect yourself accordingly. If our efforts have helped you to gain a better understanding of this subject, and if we have made you safer as a result, please fill out the contact form below.