The term “computer virus” is used to describe a computer program that can replicate itself and infect a computer. Much like its namesake, the biological virus, a computer virus must rely on the user of one computer to be spread it to another computer.
Although the terms have grown to become somewhat interchangeable, especially by computer novices, not all malware (or, malicious software) are viruses, but a virus is a form of malware. (It’s like saying Kleenex is a tissue, but not all tissues are Kleenex.) Some malware can be distributed to millions computers by its creators, replicating itself when computer users unwittingly passes on the program, usually through infected e-mails.
Computer Virus Malware Virus and non-Virus Malware
Two examples of the difference between viruses and other types of malware are spyware and adware. Typically, these two types of malware are used to learn the usage patterns of individual computer users and report back to its creators so they can profit on the findings (although they can have other more nefarious uses). They’re usually not meant to purposely attack a computer, even though it can be a side affect, nor are they meant to be passed onto other computes by the user.
Viruses, on the other hand, are intended to cause interruptions to normal processes in as many computers as possible with an executable program. Viruses can be as simple as a few lines of text written as a practical joke, or as dangerous as a program that can completely delete the contents of a hard drive.
The Evolution of Computer Viruses
Academically, the first theories of viral computer attacks were recognized as early as the late 1940s. Then, in the 1970s, the first viruses that were actually put into practice – usually as experiments – were in contained environments, such as within the ARPANET, a large-scale intranet that connected academic labs and commercial enterprises. These early “attacks,” such as the Creeper virus, which only infected ARPANET computers with a joking line of text, were important, as they also helped programmers learn how to combat viruses. Also, it proved the theories correct, that it was possible for one person to invade a string of computers.
As the popularity of home computers rose in the 1980s, so did the popularity of creating viruses. Before widespread use of the Internet, viruses were most commonly distributed on floppy disks, piggy-backing on disk-based operating systems, popular software titles, and store-bought writable floppy disks. This was an easy method because all software on floppy discs (even those direct from the publisher) were easy to alter, and, therefore, easy to copy and share with friends. This specific method of spreading a virus has all but gone by the wayside since operating systems have grown in size that they will no longer fit on one disk, plus the fact that all software titles are now on CDs or DVDs, which can be made in a read-only format.
However, when the Internet took off in the mid-1980s, and then grew in popularity toward the end of the 1990s, passing viruses through e-mails and through network vulnerabilities became the standard. First, there were viruses that were attached to software titles that were downloaded via bulletin board networks, Internet Relay Chat, or software sharing sites. Viruses disguised as executable code written into popular Microsoft documents (such as Word or Excel) were also easily distributed by unsuspecting people forwarding on a document with a heart-felt poem or pretty pictures.
Computer Viruses Today
Along with e-mail and network viruses, today’s viruses can also be spread via portable USB drives. Although this is an easy way to share files, especially in a business setting, it can also pick up viruses from unprotected computers, and spread them to every computer that the owner uses with that drive.
Some people think that computer viruses are harmless, a so-called victimless crime, like graffiti. However, just like graffiti, it can cost time, effort, and tons of money to remove viruses from a computer, or a whole network. It can also affect the flow of commerce, whether it’s freezing the computers that run an online boutique, to a large company having to pull resources from one area of its business to concentrate on cleaning or replacing damaged computers. When this happens, oftentimes a company will have to pass on the cost of the damages onto its consumers.
Computer Virus Prevention and Protection
There’s no way to stop viruses from being created. There will always be a young programmer wanting to prove that they can “play with the big boys,” or a hacker who wants to just see chaos and damage. And, just like real-world vandalism, someone who creates viruses can start their “career” with a harmless prank but grow into causing millions of dollars of damage by deleting massive files from multiple corporations.
The best way to protect home computers against viruses is to have updated antivirus software, keep computers and software updated with the latest patches, and monitor the behavior of all users of a computer, including learning what types of files can be harboring viruses (such as Microsoft word documents in a massively forwarded e-mail). There will always be viruses, but staying vigilant will help keep a computer from becoming infected.