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What is Malware?



Malware or malicious software is software designed to infiltrate or damage a computer system without the owner's informed consent. It is a portmanteau of the words "malicious" and "software". The expression is a general term used by computer professionals to mean a variety of forms of hostile, intrusive, or annoying software or program code.

Many normal computer users are however still unfamiliar with the term, and most never use it. Instead, "(computer) virus" is used in common parlance and often in the general media to describe all kinds of malware. Another term that has been recently coined for malware is badware, perhaps due to the anti-malware initiative Stopbadware or corruption of the term "malware".

Software is considered malware based on the perceived intent of the creator rather than any particular features. It includes computer viruses, worms, trojan horses, spyware, adware, and other malicious and unwanted software. In law, malware is sometimes known as a computer contaminant, for instance in the legal codes of California, West Virginia, and several other U.S. states.

Malware should not be confused with defective software, that is, software which has a legitimate purpose but contains harmful bugs.


Many early infectious programs, including the Internet Worm and a number of MS-DOS viruses, were written as experiments or pranks generally intended to be harmless or merely annoying rather than to cause serious damage. Young programmers learning about viruses and the techniques used to write them might write one to prove that they can do it, or to see how far it could spread. As late as 1999, widespread viruses such as the Melissa virus appear to have been written chiefly as pranks.

A slightly more hostile intent can be found in programs designed to vandalize or cause data loss. Many DOS viruses, and the Windows ExploreZip worm, were designed to destroy files on a hard disk, or to corrupt the filesystem by writing junk data. Network-borne worms such as the 2001 Code Red worm or the Ramen worm fall into the same category. Designed to vandalize web pages, these worms may seem like the online equivalent to graffiti tagging, with the author's name or affinity group appearing everywhere the worm goes.

However, since the rise of widespread broadband Internet access, more malicious software has been designed for a profit motive. For instance, since 2003, the majority of widespread viruses and worms have been designed to take control of users' computers for black-market exploitation. Infected "zombie computers" are used to send email spam, to host contraband data such as child pornography, or to engage in distributed denial-of-service attacks as a form of extortion.

Another strictly for-profit category of malware has emerged in spyware -- programs designed to monitor users' web browsing, display unsolicited advertisements, or redirect affiliate marketing revenues to the spyware creator. Spyware programs do not spread like viruses; they are generally installed by exploiting security holes or are packaged with user-installed software.


The best-known types of malware, viruses and worms, are known for the manner in which they spread, rather than any other particular behavior. Originally, the term computer virus was used for a program which infected other executable software, while a worm transmitted itself over a network to infect other computers. More recently, the words are often used interchangeably.

Today, some draw the distinction between viruses and worms by saying that a virus requires user intervention to spread, whereas a worm spreads automatically. Using this distinction, infections transmitted by email or Microsoft Word documents, which rely on the recipient opening a file to infect the system, would be classified as viruses, not worms.

Capsule history of virses and worms

Before Internet access became widespread, viruses spread on personal computers by infecting programs or the executable boot sectors of floppy disks. By inserting a copy of itself into the machine code instructions in these executables, a virus causes itself to be run whenever the program is run or the disk is booted. Early computer viruses were written for the Apple II and Macintosh, but they became more widespread with the dominance of the IBM PC and MS-DOS system. Executable-infecting viruses are dependent on users exchanging software or boot floppies, so they spread heavily in computer hobbyist circles.

The first worms, network-borne infectious programs, originated not on personal computers, but on multitasking Unix systems. The first well-known worm was the Internet Worm of 1988, which infected SunOS and VAX BSD systems. Unlike a virus, this worm did not insert itself into other programs. Instead, it exploited security holes in network server programs and started itself running as a separate process. This same behavior is used by today's worms as well.

With the rise of the Microsoft Windows platform in the 1990s, and the flexible macro systems of its applications, it became possible to write infectious code in the macro language of Microsoft Word and similar programs. These macro viruses infect documents and templates rather than applications, but rely on the fact that macros in a Word document are a form of executable code.

Today, worms are most commonly written for the Windows OS, although a small number are also written for Linux and Unix systems. Worms today work in the same basic way as 1988's Internet Worm: they scan the network for computers with vulnerable network services, break in to those computers, and copy themselves over. Worm outbreaks have become a cyclical plague for both home users and businesses, eclipsed recently in terms of damage by spyware.


For a malicious program to accomplish its goals, it must be able to do so without being shut down by the user or administrator of the computer it's running on. Concealment can also help get the malware installed in the first place. By disguising a malicious program as something innocuous or desirable, users may be tempted to install it without knowing what it does. This is the technique of the Trojan horse or trojan.

Broadly speaking, a Trojan horse is any program that invites the user to run it, but conceals a harmful or malicious payload. The payload may take effect immediately and can lead to many undesirable effects, such as deleting all the user's files, or more commonly it may install further harmful software into the user's system to serve the creator's longer-term goals. Trojan horses known as droppers are used to start off a worm outbreak, by injecting the worm into users' local networks.

One of the most common ways that spyware is distributed is as a Trojan horse, bundled with a piece of desirable software that the user downloads off the Web or a peer-to-peer file-trading network. When the user installs the software, the spyware is installed alongside. Spyware authors who attempt to act legally may include an end-user license agreement which states the behavior of the spyware in loose terms, but with the knowledge that users are unlikely to read or understand it.

Once a malicious program is installed on a system, it is often useful to the creator if it stays concealed. The same is true when a human attacker breaks into a computer directly. Techniques known as rootkits allow this concealment, by modifying the host operating system so that the malware is hidden from the user. Rootkits can prevent a malicious process from being reported in the process table, or keep its files from being read. Originally, a rootkit was a set of tools installed by a human attacker on a Unix system where the attacker had gained administrator (root) access. Today, the term is used more generally for concealment routines in a malicious program.

A backdoor is a method of bypassing normal authentication procedures. Many computer manufacturers preinstall backdoors on their systems to provide technical support for customers. Hackers typically use backdoors to secure remote access to a computer, while attempting to remain hidden from casual inspection. To install backdoors hackers use either Trojan horse or computer worm.


During the 1980s and 1990s, it was usually taken for granted that malicious programs were created as a form of vandalism or prank. More recently, the greater share of malware programs have been written with a financial or profit motive in mind. This can be taken as the malware authors' choice to monetize their control over infected systems: to turn that control into a source of revenue.

Since 2003 or so, the most costly form of malware in terms of time and money spent in recovery has been the broad category known as spyware. Spyware programs are commercially produced for the purpose of gathering information about computer users, showing them pop-up ads, or altering web-browser behavior for the financial benefit of the spyware creator. For instance, some spyware programs redirect search engine results to paid advertisements. Others often called "stealware" by the media overwrite affiliate marketing codes so that revenue goes to the spyware creator rather than the intended recipient.

Spyware programs are sometimes installed as Trojan horses of one sort or another. They differ in that their creators present themselves openly as businesses, for instance by selling advertising space on the pop-ups created by the malware. Most such programs present the user with an end-user license agreement which purportedly protects the creator from prosecution under computer contaminant laws. However, spyware EULAs have not yet been upheld in court.

Another way that financially-motivated malware creator can monetize their infections is to directly use the infected computers to do work for the creator. Spammer viruses, such as the Sobig and Mydoom virus families, are commissioned by e-mail spam gangs. The infected computers are used as proxies to send out spam messages. The advantage to spammers of using infected computers is that they are available in large supply (thanks to the virus) and they provide anonymity, protecting the spammer from prosecution. Spammers have also used infected PCs to target anti-spam organizations with distributed denial-of-service attacks.

In order to coordinate the activity of many infected computers, attackers have used coordinating systems known as botnets. In a botnet, the malware or malbot logs in to an Internet Relay Chat channel or other chat system. The attacker can then give instructions to all the infected systems simultaneously. Botnets can also be used to push upgraded malware to the infected systems, keeping them resistant to anti-virus software or other security measures.

Lastly, it is possible for a malware creator to profit by simply stealing from the person whose computer is infected. Some malware programs install a key logger, which copies down the user's keystrokes when entering a password, credit card number, or other information that may be useful to the creator. This is then transmitted to the malware creator automatically, enabling credit card fraud and other theft. Similarly, malware may copy the CD key or password for online games, allowing the creator to steal accounts or virtual items.

Another way of stealing money from the infected PC owner is to take control of the modem and dial an expensive toll call. Dialer (or porn dialer) software dials up a premium-rate telephone number such as a U.S. "900 number" and leave the line open, charging the toll to the infected user.


In this context, as throughout, it should be borne in mind that the